Office is coming under pressure from post-PC upstarts

Office is coming under pressure from post-PC upstarts

Summary: Ask yourself: Do you really need to use Office, or is some other post-PC-era service going to do a good enough job for you?

TOPICS: Microsoft

Yesterday saw the announcement of Box Notes. In the context of Apple making iWork free for new iPhone customers, my ZDNet colleague Mary Jo Foley had this to say:

In the past week-plus, Apple announced plans to make its iWork office suite free for iOS users, and Box has fielded a preview of its own collaborative note-taking technology. On cue, many tech pundits began sounding the "Microsoft Office is in trouble" horn, yet again.

And, of course, she's right. But Box Notes isn't direct competition to office. As another of my ZDNet colleague's Rachel King points out Box themselves are keen to point out that the tool isn't to compete with Office, or Office's competitor Google Docs, or even Box Notes more natural competitor Evernote.


The thing that makes post-PC devices so successful isn't necessarily what they can do in and of themselves, but rather what they can do in relation to the PC. The PC suffers in a competitive market with smartphones and tablets because they offer an alternative. If you only need to do Facebook, Skype, a bit of shopping on Amazon, and some email, do you need a PC? There is an argument -- borne out by the market, I might add -- that you don't.

Office is interesting because it's inherently not post-PC. Post-PC is all about a compute device that stays in the background and comes out to the foreground when it's helpful to use it. PCs (and Office) are about sitting down for (often) long periods of time and undertaking focussed work. PCs are about work, post-PC is about life.

There is nothing better than Office for certain types of work. The PC, Windows, and Office are symbiotic. Over the past 30 years they have have grown up together to create the absolute best way of being productive with a modern computer. If you need to spend all afternoon hacking out pivot tables, writing a report to go with it, and slapping together a slide deck to present to the team, there is nothing better. You'd have to be mad to try and use an iPad for a job like that.

There is though a middle ground, and this is where Office is coming under pressure.

There is a compromise that you make by choosing Office's unbelievably rich feature set over much more lightweight post-PC-class productivity tools. But like the existence of the iPad gives customers a choice over whether to buy a post-PC or not, these more lightweight productivity tools give the user a choice too. Not everyone needs Office outside of the office.

Writing a letter of complaint to a local retailer, for example. That doesn't need a PC, Windows, or Office. It's easier to do it with a physical keyboard, but you don't need one. And it's this gap that post-PC upstarts are looking to fill.

The tool I would use for this is Google Docs, but you can equally well use Office Web Apps. You could also write it in Box Notes, or Evernote.


However, it's not just about short-form pieces. This new post-PC stuff works for longform content too.

About six months ago I started out on two projects, and threw in a little experiment. I started a non-fiction book about the death of the PC, and I started a sci-fi novel. Death of the PC is about a chapter away from being finished, and the first draft of the novel I finished last night.

Together, Death of the PC is around 50,000 words in seven chapters. My novel is 85,000 words in 37 chapters. And I've written it all in Google Docs.

In my time I've authored a half-dozen books and co-authored about a half-dozen more. Excluding the two I've just finished (well, they're not quite finished as they're still being edited), I've always used Word. I've also used Excel as a simple project management tool to keep track of page counts, production status, etc.

On my non-fiction book, there are three editors. After each chapter was written, I shared the document using Google Drive with them and they made their comments and changes. I went through their feedback and adjusted the book accordingly. My side of this was all done on a Mac using Chrome. Microsoft didn't get a look in.

Go back ten years and this just would not have been an option. It would have had to have been Word end-to-end, with SharePoint, email, or FTP used to share documents. The alternative tools are better and now I have a choice as to which ones to use.

What I liked about using Google Docs was that it was so lightweight and convenient. I was able to express myself in Google Docs in exactly the same way as I would have done in Word. (Where Google Docs suffers compared to Word is in its handling of styles and layout. In a book though there isn't much of that -- raw typescripts only contain a few styles and a whole bunch of prose without complex layout.)

The editors got on OK with it too -- which was important as I was paying for their time and it obviously would not have been a big win for me had it have taken them twice as long to do their job using Google Docs compared to Word.

Would I use this approach again? Yes -- absolutely. Every time. For me, the alternative way of doing it works.

I should say that after the initial drafts, production does require us to use Office. In order to get the books typeset for production on Kindle and for print-on-demand using CreateSpace, we've had to paste the content into Word because all of the production tooling is based on using Word. We're using Google Drive to share these typescripts around between the team. (We could equally well have used SkyDrive, DropBox, or even SharePoint.)


The last point -- that I've still had to use Word for production -- tells us that Office isn't in some kind of fatal death spiral. Common sense tells us it isn't either -- although the PC is suffering, people will always need to do work, and Office is a great tool for focused work and always will be. No one will ever catch up to work in terms of the spread of functionality that Office provides. The danger to office comes in how people use it.

But in the same way that everyone benefits from increased choice and alternatives in their digital lives provided by smartphones and tablets, everyone also benefits from increased choice and alternatives in productivity tools.

Bring it on.

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

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Topic: Microsoft

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  • "post-PC-era"?

    Sorry, I don't think this term is accurate. The PC is not going anywhere for a long time to come. The coming era is more accurately described as PC-Plus, although I hope someone comes up with something better than that too if we are going to through around such terms. "Post-PC-era" is used by those that just wish Microsoft would go out of business and not be heard from again. That is not going to happen either.
    • Don't educate him

      let him live in his "Post-PC" sink-hole ala dream. He really can't say Post-PC without saying PC.
      Ram U
      • re:

        Consider the title of his next book: "Death of the PC". That should pretty much tell you all you need to know about what agenda he's promoting in advance of its publication. Ought to be a real NY Times best seller, I tell ya.
        Sir Name
        • LOL

          Now that's the way you comment on an article. Good job!
          • Matt Baxter-Reynolds is ...

            a consumate retard
    • Non-Article...

      The Article is about nothing. I could even write a book with Notepad and do the styling later as he has done. The point is a lot of people dont know the existance of a Surface and just buy the iPad or Android tablet. Those tablets are just not finished products. But what the heck if you only use them for browsing. Thats the "life" thing he is pointing on. But why have not both? I have a Surface RT, play music that comes out of my BlueTooth speaker and what is stored on my sdCard of 64Gb. At the same time I am browsing with Internet Explorer between switching on my Word document. Ha ha, do that on your iPad or Android device, I dont think so :-)
      Herman Van Der Blom
      • It's not important. Otherwise it would be a problem.

        I use a small Acer netbook, actually pretty deluxe for the price. It has Linux Mint 15 Cinnamon on a 500 GB hard drive, 3 GB of Ram, a single core 1.7 GHz processor, 6 cell battery and full size keyboard.

        It's extremely efficient and includes LibreOffice. I can multitask, but the 11.5 netbook is just about as convenient as a tablet, and I can easily access the hard drive and internals. I mostly don't use the hard drive, but boot up using a Live Knoppix USB flash drive. It has full 256 bit encryption and works as a full OS with LibreOffice, Chrome, Iceweasel and other programs.

        If I remove the hard drive completely, it would operate exactly the same, and I could easily insert a Class 10 64 GB SD card for storage and access it from either OS. I'm going to remove the hard drive and see how much the battery life is increased without the additional load. Maybe it will last a couple of days. Knoppix, as a USB OS, is complete enough and has Compiz Fusion enabled by default with a rotating cube of four separate desktops.

        The Surface tablet has the Microsoft security baggage and needs AV, where the competition does not. I would not want to get involved with a MS smartphone or tablet that needs AV and the associated hassles. AV is not necessary at all with Linux.
      • Herman Van Der Blom

        Can your RT tablet run Torque to diagnose a car? How about a Roku remote app? Grace Digital Radio remote app? Native Google Maps app? Does your bank make a native app for WindowsRT? I dont think so :-)
  • Try buying an office suite for Android

    I have a phone/mini-tablet( Blu life View) that didn't come with an office suite like Polaris Office. Was it ever eye opening to see the crapware that passes for productivity software in this "post-pc" world.

    After a couple hours of hunting and trying stuff out, I settled on Documents to Go, but I would have been willing to pay $25 for Polaris if that wasn't a Samsung exclusive. It became obvious rather than having a "suite", I needed to settle for just being able to open the odd email attachment.

    Office 365 is a non-starter as Post-PC seems to imply subscription fees up the you-know-what.

    Post-pc? Make me laugh more.
    • Office 2013 rather than Office 365

      Office 2013 is the licensed version of Office 365, no renewals, you own it. That is what my company is buying.
      • Except that the cost is NOT $99

        It is only $99 for the gullible.

        The actual cost is between $297 and $396. Because a yearly fee is nothing but the 3 to 4 year cycle of usage split between multiple payments.

        But I do agree with all others. When it comes to Office suite, the only good one is MS Office .... its got its issues, but it works. OpenOffice is getting better, but it still light years away from MS Office (and it still sucks at opening its own native format [ODF] files ... even on the same machine and same software that wrote it).

        And please, do not even talk about Google Docs / Apps. The only people who think that that piece of crap is usable are people who do nothing but plain text.
        • or less than 99.00 a year based on usage

          Office 365 comes with 5 licenses for a user, so for me with 4 devices 2 desktops, laptop, and smartphone I am using 4 copies of Office for that 99.00 a year. Also it comes with 60 min. a month of Skype premium which I also use saving me the cost of a Skype premium account (99.00 a year). And I got an additional 20 gig of Skydrive for storing documents and picture. All in all I think imho that it was a great deal for me anyways.
  • yep, we really do need Office

    In my work and at home, it's all Office. It's the best. Far more than just word processing and simple number crunching. Users are demanding PowerPivot for our OFFICE SharePoint server now.
    we're not post-PC.
  • Office is still the best tool for the middle ground

    Not the most affordable, but the best. Office 365 works great on iPhones. The web interface is superb, just as good as iWork's and better than Google Docs. And it can scale up to serious work, and scale down to note taking (OneNote.)

    Now, the other tools can do it cheaper. But they aren't as good - not even for the middle ground stuff, as you never know when you have to take your scratch notes and present them in front of a 1,000 people.
    • Affordable?

      It's $99 a year for 5 PC/Laptops and 5 mobile devices, 60 minutes of skype credit, and 20GB extra Skydrive space. Not sure how much cheaper it could get per year for that.
      • Except that the cost is NOT $99

        It is only $99 for the gullible.

        The actual cost is between $297 and $396. Because a yearly fee is nothing but the 3 to 4 year cycle of usage split between multiple payments.

        But I do agree with all others. When it comes to Office suite, the only good one is MS Office .... its got its issues, but it works. OpenOffice is getting better, but it still light years away from MS Office (and it still sucks at opening its own native format [ODF] files ... even on the same machine and same software that wrote it).

        And please, do not even talk about Google Docs / Apps. The only people who think that that piece of crap is usable are people who do nothing but plain text.
  • Office is coming under pressure from post-PC upstarts

    No need to settle for the upstarts when Microsoft has a long history with Microsoft Office. They have the experience and know how to make their Office suite work on devices. Plus I we be assured that the compatibility is there, something you don't get with third party applications. I'll take the company who knows what they are doing and has years of experience doing it.
    • Except they are not doing it

      There is not real office for iOS or Android meaning the billions of devices that run those, are not using MS Office.

      MS may have made a big mistake by not having a native iOS and/or Android version.
      • Android

        There is Office 365 app for Android. It's put out by MS, and it does everything it could possibly be expected to do running inside a mobile OS (read and edit documents). So there is a "real" office for Android, and it is "native".
      • umm yes they do

        Not sure about iOS but Office 365 certainly has an Android version, it's running on my S3 right now.