The Threat That Nearly Destroyed Microsoft Office

Microsoft Office everywhere - now with Dropbox and Box integration

Microsoft is continuing an aggressive push to ensure that Word, Excel and Powerpoint continue to be the standard business file formats as we move into a new world of mobile devices and files stored online in a variety of services. Recent examples: Dropbox has added support for editing Office files online, and Box will be adding similar support soon.

More details about those in the next article, but the bigger picture is more interesting. Microsoft deserves credit for taking steps to head off a threat to its dominance before it was too late – hard for big companies to do in this fast-moving age!

Office Everywhere: the overview

In the last few years Microsoft has made the core Office programs – Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and OneNote – available on every platform for every device. You can get those programs as readily on iPads and iPhones and Android phones as on Windows computers. The mobile programs are optimized for small screens; the touch versions incorporate subtle changes to make them more touch-friendly. There are web-based versions that have become polished and full-featured.

This required a huge change in Microsoft’s entire company philosophy. Microsoft spent decades protecting its Windows franchise by making its core programs only available on Windows, or at least far better on Windows than other platforms. Office has long been available for Macs, for example, but the programs were noticeably weaker than the Windows versions and updates were delayed. That’s still true today but in a few months Office for Mac 2016 is expected to bring the Mac versions into parity with the Windows versions.

A few years ago it would have been unthinkable to have Office programs running on an iPad. Now it seems inevitable.

In an even bigger surprise, the Office programs are free on mobile devices. The online browser-based versions are free. The pricing on the new subscription-based licenses for computers is a small fraction of what it used to cost when we would routinely tack on a couple of hundred dollars to the cost of a new computer for a single, non-transferrable license.

Why did Microsoft start pushing Office everywhere for free?

There’s a simple answer about the reason for Microsoft’s change of heart about supporting other platforms and giving away Office. But I think there’s also a deeper answer.

The simple answer is that Microsoft still makes money – big money – selling Office licenses to enterprises, and it makes money on its cheap Office 365 subscriptions. Even if some people use the Office programs for free, Microsoft can still generate a steady and quite generous stream of income from the people who buy subscriptions. Make no mistake: Microsoft makes billions of dollars every quarter on Office sales.

But that’s not all.

The deeper answer is that Microsoft was facing a profound threat: a platform shift that would have permanently destroyed the grip that the Office programs have had on our consciousness and started a precipitous decline in their sales.

Office programs have held onto an unbreakable grip on Windows computers ever since Lotus 123 and WordPerfect misjudged the market in the early 1990s and let Excel and Word take over.

As much as anything, Office built its long-lasting success on the shared belief that the programs are inevitable. We’ve believed it for years. You’re doing work, you need Word and Excel. Period. End of story.

The appearance of inevitability is fragile. Ask Kodak. Ask IBM. Ask Blockbuster, or Polaroid, or MySpace, or Palm, or any of the other companies that failed to react to a changing world back in the old days when changes happened slowly.

In 2007 Apple released the first iPhone, the beginning of a profound shift in attention from Windows computers to mobile devices. Dropbox was founded the same year, starting a long-term shift to storing files online instead of on our local computers. At the same time, a new generation of students, journalists and tech enthusiasts was starting to influence the discussions of technology on campuses, in the media, and in business.

It wasn’t widely understood but there was a shift in the conversation and the belief was becoming widespread that the next generation had no loyalty to the Office programs and could just as easily use something else – anything else. After all, there were plausible alternatives to the Office programs from Google and others, as well as open source word processors and spreadsheet editors.

That’s what was at risk: a generation of influential students, enthusiasts, and business leaders doing their work without Office, happily shaping our expectations and destroying that shared belief in the inevitability of Office with the help of journalists and bloggers and Microsoft competitors.

If Microsoft had not acted, I can easily imagine that the base of loyalty to the Office programs would have crumbled with blinding speed. Sure, businesses would continue to use the Office programs but the decline would have been swift and relentless, turning the Office programs into a legacy business coasting to the end of a long tail.

Apparently someone at Microsoft believed (and I agree) that the only way for Office to prevent that result was to make Office ubiquitous – right now, yesterday, no hesitation, no loyalty to nostalgic memories of fat profits. Give it away! Put it online! Forget any preference for the days when Windows was supreme – follow the customers to mobile devices regardless of the operating system. Use OneDrive as the glue to make it worthwhile to use the Office programs on every platform. We used Office for decades because it was convenient for everyone to use the same programs; it was cheaper to train employees and easier to exchange files. Microsoft has extended that convenience to mobile devices.

It worked! It’s intangible but I feel like the conversation has shifted back in Microsoft’s favor. The Office programs on mobile devices are better than anything else, and they’re free. I sense a collective shrug as the same students and enthusiasts and business leaders settle down to use the Office programs because, well, why not? They’re the best choice and everyone else is using them.

The Office programs may still be on a long decline but Microsoft changed the bell curve in its favor by moving fast and decisively.

Keep it in mind as you read news about the Office programs in the next year or two, as Microsoft continues to make them more widespread, more convenient, with more features, all designed to reinforce the belief that choosing them is obvious and inevitable. In the next article, I’ll give you a couple of specific examples with Dropbox and Box.