Exaggerated Reports of Office’s Death

    January 10, 2006

From all quarters you can hear the pronouncements of the death of Microsoft Office.

Steve Gillmor insisted that Office is dead in a podcast conversation with Robert Scoble. The subject also came up on This Week in Tech. Bill Gates, the consensus goes, should be quaking in his boots since so much of Microsoft’s business is wrapped up in sales of Office. The threat is the growing number of web-based services that do pretty much what office does.

There’s Gmail as a replacement for Outlook, for example. I talk to more and more people for whom Gmail is their only email client. Online word processors are also cropping up, like Writely and Zoho Writer. Dan Bricklin (who developed VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet) has produced a wiki-based spreadsheet application. Who needs to install bloated software on a computer when these tools are readily available online? The tools-and your documents-are available wherever you are, the argument goes; you’re not hosed if you’re away from the computer.

All of which is true. There are still plenty of reasons to believe that Office will thrive for the foreseeable future, though. To begin with, high-speed Internet access just isn’t pervasive yet. It’s not available on airplanes where I do much of my work, and while it will become common, it won’t happen soon. Further, the cost of on-board access may keep many laptop users offline. And while I can get online in just about any airport, my $25-plus T*Mobile hotspit account works only in a small percentage of airports. Every airport has a deal with a different service provider and getting online is $9.95 or more in most airports, more than I’m usually willing to spend for the 15 minutes of connectivity I need to check my email or post to my blog. Now I need to pony up that money just to crank out a word-processor document? Please.

While all these AJAX-based tools are definitely cool, they also are incomplete. I’ve played with Writely and I like it, but it doesn’t help me if I need to incorporate something as simple as a table or a graphic. Mail merge? Forget it. Further, these tools aren’t interrelated. I can’t bring data from a spreadsheet into a presentation and have it automatically update when I make a change to the spreadsheet. This probably won’t always be the case, but it is for now, and likely for a while.

But the biggest obstacle to adoption of these is the CIO. Most Office installations aren’t attributed to sole practitioners like me. They’re site licenses bought by businesses large and small. Each of these businesses has a security-conscious IT manager who is concerned about putting the company’s intellectual assets at risk. The notion of creating sensitive internal documents on a web-based services will undoubtedly send tremors of terror along the spines of these already-paranoid executives.

If the IT staff doesn’t seem like an obstacle, consider the employees who use Office. Not the high-tech, early adopting, gadget loving employees, but everyone else. I worked with a company recently where there was damn near a revolt over switching the staff from WordPerfect to Word. People threatened to quit. Others were threatened with termination if they continued to resist. It was ugly. Change is hard and slow.

Finally, let’s not forget that Microsoft has already taken a few tiny steps into this space with its Windows Live beta. I don’t know everything Redmond has in mind, but imagine being able to work on a document in Word on your PC, then when you’re traveling, being able to pull that document up over the web using Live. It’s not an outrageous concept. NewsGator acquired FeedDemon and is planning to allow you to synch your FeedDemon RSS feeds with a NewsGator Live version.

So don’t look for Office to lose its relevance anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean communicators shouldn’t pay attention to tools like Writely, which could dramatically simplify the collaborative creation of documents.

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.