Last week, Microsoft released Office for iPad. Many, including this writer, thought that long overdue. Few now think the time has passed for this software on that platform – including some who thought it was but have now retracted that view. The product has been well received and is being rapidly adopted. Thank goodness for that. We’re all expecting a similar release on Android sometime soon. I’m sure it will do very well too.
It was inevitable whatever the timing. Tablets are everywhere. Android & iOS are now the dominant platforms for the Post-PC world. Microsoft’s Surface has been, well, a dud (to put it mildly). Windows 8 is a similarly disappointing release but not to the same extent as Surface. Touch-enabled PC form-factors like Ultrabook 2 and other “convertibles” bring out more of the benefits of Windows 8 but the modern (aka Metro) user experience has not been well received at all. The expiration of support for Windows XP has spurred new PC sales after years of flat or declining sales. But all of this has not affected the onward and upward growth of tablets.
This is not surprising. Tablets are not a kind of PC, as Microsoft believed in the last years of Steve Ballmer’s reign as CEO. The attempt to make them so has resoundingly failed. Nor is Office going away anytime soon, as the most vehement anti-Microsoft proponents of the Post-PC world will have you believe. A billion Office users can’t all be wrong. The accumulated volume of Office documents over the last 2 decades is a huge reason to keep using these tools. But now the past, present and likely future of the knowledge worker’s world have come together in Office for iPad.
The changes in doctrine and philosophy at Microsoft are large, profound and (hopefully) permenant. These changes signal a more hopeful future for their place in the unfolding Post-PC world. The apps themselves are, to a point, free from Apple’s iTunes AppStore – full functionality is enabled by a paid subscription to Office365 or an in-house enterprise license. There are supplementary tools – the Enterprise Mobility Suite – that enable large-scale management. Documents are stored in Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud storage facility. And, importantly, any in-app subscriptions to Office365 from Office for iPad are subject to 30% revenue sharing with Apple. The difference between this device+service approach, especially bridging two Cloud ecosystems, and the traditional Microsoft business model is staggering. It would have been unthinkable only five years ago.
It is fitting that this announcement be delivered by Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella in the 52nd day of his tenure. It was foreshadowed by Steve Ballmer last year and I’m sure the product itself has been in development for many years. That Microsoft delivers an edition of Office on an Apple platform is nothing new. They’ve been doing it in one shape or form since the inception of the Macintosh. What’s very different is how they’ve done it. In short, they’ve done it according to someone else’s business model – Apple’s. That’s radically different. They’ve decided to give some software features away for nothing and charge for others on a yearly or months subscription basis. That’s not quite as profoundly different – Microsoft has been adopting that approach very gradually for a long time. The software itself is a curious hybrid between Microsoft and Apple user experience styles. That has also been done for years. But $100 per annum for 5 licences of Office on Office365 on PCs, Macs & iPad is new, particularly the iPad piece.
If Microsoft embraces (the competitive horror of) Android tablets in the same way, there is great hope for the future of their software. The one billion Office users, 200 million iPad users and 500 million Android tablet/phablet users could all become Microsoft office users. The promise of anywhere, any time and on any device – a Microsoft marketing catch cry for almost 15 years – could be much closer to being realised in the modern mobility world. An iPad Air running an A7 processor and iOS7 is certainly capable enough to start the ball rolling. Similarly capable Android tablets are too. Future (presumably Nokia designed and made) tablets would certainly be with a future Windows, perhaps even if they ran the “Metro”-skinned Android. Platform plurality is back with a vengeance and it’s certainly good to see Microsoft making room in their philosophy and doctrine for that fact of life.
Google has iOS apps – and some extremely good ones – on the iOS platform. Apple does not reciprocate on the Google platform (but has shipped iTunes on Windows for a decade) and is never likely to, even though Android hugely outsells iOS. What we’re seeing now are the consequences of competitive forces in the marketplace on very large corporations. Cisco has aspirations to being a meta-Cloud player. Maybe that too will work. But nobody has had an installed base of over a billion users has ever done anything like this before. We are living through a milestone change in the history of technology companies. It just such a shame that it took this long for it to happen…