Tell me again why we need Office on the iPad?

Summary:If we're not going to get Office for the iPad until late 2014, and we seem to be doing alright without it now, is it even something we need in our lives?

No Office on iPad
It's been a long time coming. Image: ZDNet/Matt Baxter-Reynolds

Throughout the time the iPad has been available for sale, people have been talking about wanting to run Office on it.

The latest information from my esteemed colleague Mary Jo Foley — having seen an internal Microsoft roadmap — is that Office for iPad is happening, but not until  late 2014 .

Assuming this date is right — the original iPad was first available for sale in April 2010, so we would have had nearly five years of the iPad without Office being available for it.

Don't you then have to wonder, if we've waited that long, do we need it at all?

Old problems

We're now three-and-a-half years into the iPad, and I still regularly run into people who ask me why I need an iPad?

Like the Matrix, no one can be told what the purpose of an iPad is; you have to see it for yourself. What I tend to do is tell people that they won't be disappointed with the purchase, but it's hard to understand what an individual would use it for before they own one.

This phenomenon also applies to smartphones and tablets that aren't iPads — in fact, it applies to any post-PC device. These are devices that seem to defy explanation, but once adopted, seem to hit a certain resonance with peoples lives and usually finds a comfortable harmony with the owner's lifestyle.

I would imagine that if you went back in time to the introduction of, say, the radio, you'd hit similar problems. "I'm happy reading a book."

"Yes, but you can hear the news on the radio."

"But I get the news when I get my paper in the morning."

"This is better."

"Why?"

"It just is."

"Right..."

Yet, prevailing "wisdom" from technologists seems to suggest that if you could run Office on the iPad, it would suddenly have purpose and meaning. This device would suddenly become something worth owning, as opposed to something that people buy in the their millions and are perfectly happy with despite it's lack of Office.

Let's see if we can scrape together some sort of evidence...

Firstly, analysts/pundits are often wrong (NB: I'm often wrong), but as far as I'm aware, in the years since the iPad has been introduced, there has been no amateur or professional punditry of any kind that has gone out and said that the iPad would be a more successful device if only Microsoft would deign to provide Office for it.

The iPad is clearly successful without Office. The Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire devices are also successful without Office. It doesn't seem to follow that Apple, Google, or Amazon would benefit from variants of Office that run on iOS and Android.

Secondly, the tablet market is hugely lucrative, and for years now, there has been a hole in it where Office would fit. Yet no one has stepped in. Over that time, we've had the three Apple-provided quasi-Office apps (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) and Documents To Go by DataViz. The Apple apps still feature in the top 100 iPad apps in the UK. Documents To Go no longer does. They sell well and are decent products, but get spanked by Candy Crush Saga et al.

Thirdly, the only tablet in the market specifically designed to run Office — a tablet whose very user experience design was bent around the idea of running Office — hasn't sold very well. In fact (well, perhaps not fact because it's my subjective opinion)  it's actually not a very good tablet at all . Surface with Windows RT  sales have never been stellar , and now it looks like Microsoft may introduce a smaller tablet to try and combat that.

Which is mad. If Surface is designed to be "the tablet for running Office", then Sartre was wrong. Hell isn't "other people" — "hell is trying to tap out a cash flow forecast using Excel on a 7-inch tablet".

And for what it's worth, I do believe that Surface is "the tablet for running Office" — if this wasn't the case, Microsoft would have continued to develop Courier. Canning Courier was a huge mistake.

Vision

So we know that Office on iPad hasn't happened, but should it happen? Spoiler: No.

Coming back to my earlier point, this is a classic issue of what I think of as "technologist's lensing" — ie, when a technologist looks at a problem, they tend to see a solution that best suits a technologist.

Technologists have what I think is a unique problem compared to other professions — specifically, that the delineation between tools used at work and at play is indistinct. If a chemist comes home from work, they're unlikely to have expensive lab equipment in their kitchen. Yet, when a software engineer comes home from work, it's likely they have the same or better kit in their house than they do at the office.

Thus, whereas a chemist might come home and not go into the kitchen and start running experiments, a software engineer can do exactly that. This bends the technologist's vision, because the process of moving from work to play is one that is non-experiential. PC at work, then PC at home. Work tools at work — work tools at home.

I don't personally think this needs to be the case — a little light self-reflection and this becomes obvious. Are you a technologist who owns a Kindle? You could read books on your PC when you go to bed, but do you? Do you instead use the Kindle? How about cooking — do you read recipes on your iPad, or do you cart your laptop into the kitchen? 

Post-PC technology is not about cost-benefit, it's all about experience. Technologists need to reflect on their own unconcious behaviour in order to understand post-PC.

Conclusion

Office, Windows, and the PC are welded together into an office-centric triad, all of which operate in harmony to create a valuable and powerful tool when considered from the perspective of driving commercial efficiency. Office does nothing for one's experience at play, and taking Office out of the work environment and mixing it in with a sociologically-driven, relationship-centric play device doesn't deliver value.

It's this lack of value that explains why analysts don't talk about increasing iPad's attractiveness in the market, why an able entrepreneur hasn't come along and filled the gap, and why the only Office-centric tablet on the market doesn't sell.

If I were on Microsoft's exec team, I'd be more worried about introducing Office for iPad than not. Not for any reasons about cannibalising sales — but rather because it puts the spotlight on whether Office is destined to become the niche specialty device that the PC is.

Because, you know, it really is.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Tablets

About

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

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