The Office Gets a Facelift

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Pity today’s poor productivity applications.

They’re the mundane workhorses at work and at home: programs that fire up as soon as we turn on our computers in the morning and remain front and center until we shut down at the end of the day. Although we’d be nowhere without our word processors, spreadsheets, presentation software and e-mail clients, we rarely take the time to appreciate their impact. They run our businesses and keep our kids on track, but we often ignore their significance because they don’t ship with eye-popping 3-D graphics or seven-channel surround sound. No one, after all, stands around a Word document waiting for a stunning demo of how to build an automatically updated table.

Like a best friend, productivity software is always there for us. Its basic premise hasn’t changed a whole lot in recent years because, frankly, users haven’t demanded it. They know what they like, and they derive comfort from using tools that have looked, worked and even felt the same ever since they first began using them. While some features get added and tweaked from one version to the next, the basic formula is always plain, familiar vanilla.

All this is about to change. Microsoft Office, long the dominant player in the productivity application market that it essentially invented close to 20 years ago, is about to undergo the most radical evolution in its history. Web-based competitors like Google Apps and Zoho are increasingly challenging the assumption that productivity software is sold in a box, installed off of a CD or DVD and used exclusively on a local or network drive. Despite the fact that Microsoft Office virtually owns the business market — more than 80 percent of enterprises have standardized on it — the growing influence of Web-based software is prompting the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant to rethink how we work, where we work and even how we pay for it.

To be fair to Microsoft, its Office franchise isn’t under immediate threat from Web-based upstarts. The company continues to rack up huge piles of cash — $16 billion last year alone — from sales of its conventional Office suite. Despite the fact that competing Web-based tools are as close as the nearest browser and conventionally installed alternatives like OpenOffice.org are a download away, the world shows no sign of moving away from its near-addiction to Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Of course, too many tech companies have learned the hard way that the longer-term threats are the ones that’ll do you in. So Microsoft isn’t taking any chances.

To wit, Office 2010, which Microsoft previewed for developers at this summer’s Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans, will ship with a companion Web-based version — known as Office Web — when it hits the market next year. As with Google Apps, Microsoft’s online offerings can’t come anywhere close to replacing the full-blown version of Office. They are feature-limited and optimized for what Microsoft calls “lightweight” use. For heavy-duty file creation and editing, Microsoft provides handy buttons to quickly move Web-created work into the full-blown suite. The new offering — free, just like the competition — replaces earlier services marketed under the Microsoft Office Live banner that failed to make much of a ripple.

Microsoft’s continued investment in Web-based apps reinforces that these are hardly flash-in-the-pan industry milestones. Web-based applications — also referred to as software as a service (SaaS) or cloud-based computing — first took root about five years ago as Web 2.0 programming standards like XML, Javascript and Ajax became more popular. Updated browsers and related client software that supported these new standards facilitated widespread distribution and use. Google has seized poster child status in this space with a relentless wave of announcements, from Gmail and Google Docs to Calendar and Maps, all of which have succeeded in extending what we thought Web-based applications could do.

As impressive as these products are, most of us still aren’t ready to dump Office for a fully browser-based productivity experience. Although Google Gears facilitates better off-line functionality, it fails to approach the seamless desktop experience long offered by conventional installations of Office — which is why Microsoft Office 2010 is so pivotal to Microsoft’s future, and why we’ll all have different views of productivity applications when it ships next year.

It will support seamless workflows across the so-called three-screen environment: conventional desktop, browser and mobile device. While you can move data into and out of competing Web suites, it’s a far from seamless process that relies on imports, exports and other file conversion activities. Most users can’t be bothered. They simply want a central data repository and an easy way to get at their data from any client device. Office 2010 will move us closer to this device-independent way of working and begin the evolution away from 20 years of looking at productivity apps the same way. 

Carmi Levy is a technology journalist and analyst with experience launching help desks and managing projects for major financial services institutions. He offers consulting advice on enterprise infrastructure, mobility and emerging social media. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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