Office goes online, maybe

Finally. Microsoft will push out a version of Office for the web. Not long ago I wondered why Microsoft was futzing around with Bing instead of making this move. But their insistence on a slow unveiling, rather than release-and-refine, makes the shift in strategy half-hearted, at first glance:

“Lots of competitors are doing nothing beyond copying what we have done in our product for years,” said Chris Capossela, a senior vice president in Microsoft’s business division. “They have weekly releases to add things like bold and italics and more than four fonts. We have to redefine what productivity means to 500 million people.”

I interpret this as:

  1. Office has no real competition. We’ll do this whatever way we darn well please.
  2. Browser-based computing is limited. For email? Fine. For sharing finished product? Maybe. But real work still happens on the desktop.
  3. We know we screwed the pooch with Vista. No way we’re doing that again.

While Jon Fortt sees this as a bold move, I think the real change here isn’t the price, but the shift in networking strategy. Microsoft is clearly positioning the desktop first and the cloud second. Okay, since that’s where the money is for them (e.g. Office). I don’t think Microsoft will endanger good ole desktop Office by making a slimmer version for the web. If that were the case, Google Docs, Adobe Buzzword, and the like would have a far larger user base than they do now, since they can read and write Microsoft formats. I think most people recognize that web-based writing tools are fundamentally different than their desktop counterparts, designed for different purposes, and focusing on different feature sets. Google Docs ain’t gonna make a table with complex borders and shading, or the kind of printable newsletter possible in Word or InDesign. Period. More importantly, most folks just feel at home on the desktop. Start, Word. Start, Excel. Or click the little E. That’s the extent of the comfort zone for a lot of users.

Given that, Microsoft has a unique position: they alone have the market share, resources, and instant user base to build an online/offline system which allows the complexity of desktop-based word processors to be combined with the powerful collaboration tools which are so attractive in their online analogues. And that seems to be their strategy, with co-authoring tools and repositioning of OneNote. It looks like Microsoft will reach into the cloud via the desktop, not the browser. On the one hand, that’s unexpected, given the continued dominance of Internet Explorer. On the other hand, no Microsoft monopoly is stronger than Office’s. If done right, 2010 could bring the cloud down to the desktop seamlessly, catapulting Microsoft and Office past Google and Docs–and quietly making Firefox a little less relevant in the process. Now wouldn’t that make Steve Ballmer proud?

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One Response to Office goes online, maybe

  1. Mollie says:

    I have high hopes for an online Word application. It could save money for schools since we won’t have to buy Office for library computers and other student machines (exception being business classes). I am surprised more has not been made of this point. Or am I missing something?

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