Why is Microsoft obsessed with putting Office on tablets?

Why is Microsoft obsessed with putting Office on tablets?

Summary: Oh, Bill, people don't want Office on their iPads. Or Nexus 7s. Or maybe even their Surfaces.

TOPICS: Tablets

Really, Bill? People are frustrated that they can't type and create documents on their iPads? And they want a Surface instead?

Horse with Office
Horses for courses. The PC and Office work well together. Tablets and Office? Not so much.
(Image: Horse head Arabian horse image by Dusan Bicanski, public domain; Microsoft)

Are you really sure about that?

Really sure?

Actual work

I've been working on a new book recently about the sort of stuff I write on this blog, and I've been doing a lot of thinking about three years ago, when I started to develop an affection for post-PC computing. I remembered back to the time when I bought my iPad, I had absolutely no idea what I would use it for. I wasn't a particular fan of Apple kit — I think I had an iPhone, but I could equally well have had a BlackBerry at this time; I can't exactly remember.

I had an idea that I could use it to take notes in meetings. So I bought one of those pens with the funny rubber conductive tip and waited for both parts to arrive. When they did, I tried using a note-taking app with the pen, and found it to be a disaster. I bought Documents To Go, thinking I'd sync my documents folder onto it. I never actually got around to doing that.

Instead, what I found over time that appealed to be about the iPad was the same thing that everyone else found appealing. It was an insanely convenient device, giving me access to my email, my diary, letting me do web browsing, watch TV, play games with a level of portability that let me do that wherever and "whenever" I happened to be.

The essential things I've used a tablet for haven't changed since that time. I happen to think that the whole "content creation versus content consumption" thing is a myth — why isn't posting to Facebook just as creative as writing a masters dissertation or a novel? — and I can't think of a single instance in the past three years where I've sat down to do "actual work" on an iPad.

I'm aware that I'm a sample of one in this case, but I'm pretty sure that the usage model that I've adopted with my iPad is essentially the same as that of most people's. Particularly, I don't pine for Office on my iPad one little bit, and never have.


My position on this is that in domestic settings, consumers don't care about Office, or keyboards, or content creation one jot. I can't see how Bill's comments about how people are frustrated with the iPads — most of which are used in domestic settings — actually lines up to any form of reality.

Now, this is a dangerous thing to say. Because if you say "consumers don't care about Office", you can attract quite a lot of flack.

Office as a product is outrageously good in the following usage scenarios:

  • Professional work — ie, someone is paying you to do something and you're obliged to use Office to perform that task. "Jenkins, I don't care that you've done the budget, you've written it on the back of a packet of cornflakes, I want it in Excel!"

  • Student work — eg, you have to produce a piece of work, and Office makes that more efficient. Crunching numbers for a doctoral thesis is easier in Excel than using an abacus.

  • Hobbies — eg, you're writing a novel, and it's easier to use Word to do that than it is to scratch it out with a quill pen on vellum.

Office is also handy when you want to write a letter to the council complaining about local youth graffiti-ing a statue of a local hero. But it's not technically necessary for that. If you own Windows, you have Wordpad, and if you own OS X, you have TextEdit. Or you can use Google Docs, or Office Web Apps.

My point is that Office is a horse that does well on a certain type of course. If you look at the three situations above, you'll find that they're all essentially the same type of activity — namely, focused work where the activity that you're undertaking is the primary thing that you're doing.

Moreover, when you're doing that sort of work, you need three things that aren't exactly the tablet's stock in trade. You need a big, clear, bright screen, a keyboard, and a desk. Specifically, you need a PC, and you need to sit down in front of it, and type.

Tablets aren't like that. Everything you do on a tablet can be considered as secondary to a primary activity. Watching TV on a tablet is not the primary activity. Although it feels like that's what you're doing, what you're actually doing as the primary activity as relaxing and using the tablet as a tool to support that relaxation. Similarly, if you take a photo on your phone and share it on Instagram, the primary activity is whatever you're taking the photo off (kids running around having a good time, watching an Airbus Beluga coming into land, etc).

What situations might incline someone to sit down at an iPad to do "proper work" could be done just as well using a normal PC. Or, dare I say it, a chromebook. Don't write a novel on an iPad. That's just silly.


All of this is simply a point of specialisation. The triumvirate of PC, Windows, and Office have evolved over decades to be outrageously good at focused work and constructive production of complex output.

A tablet isn't for that. A tablet is what you use when you've had enough of being focused and constructive, and just want to get on with being your own person.

This seems to be something that Microsoft just does not get. The only thing that Surface RT is really good at is running Office. It's not as good at being the sort of device you want to veg with as an iPad, or a Kindle Fire, or a good Android tablet. Yes, you can use a Windows tablet for vegging out, and yes, people will tell me that they can use it for that, but it's not a market leader in that space. It is, however, the best tablet you can buy if you just want to run Office and want a comparatively lousy and overpriced experienced compared to iOS and Android-based tablets that specialise in supporting life rather than work.

It's worth remembering that Apple has recently shifted 19.5 million tablets where the ability to use Office is very, very ropey compared to the excellent, optimised experience offered by the PC. That's 2.5 iPads per second. The only voice I hear complaining about Office not being on the iPad is Microsoft's chairman. I suspect that's because Apple is selling 2.5 iPads every second.

And convergence? The idea that people want one device that is both a tablet and a PC? No. The only people who want that are people who've never had access to such a thing. Specialisation trumps hybrids every time, because of the basic side-effect of hybrids: Compromise.

There are two horses, and there are two courses. Office always wins the race on one of those pairings, but is so pointless on the other one that t deserves to be put to pasture in a nice farm, where it can be constantly surprised at the cows in the next field and reminisce about the races it used to win.

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

Topic: Tablets

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  • Thats funny

    We just deployed around 1000 Ipads and around 60% of the sellers have rang up moaning for Office on the tablet....
    • Silly people

      Just follow this guy's advice and download a Wordpad app. They'll be set.
      Dreyer Smit
      • So missing the mark

        I need MSOffice (all of it, not just W/E/P) for work; both my main job and my small personal business. My kids need it for school.

        So why would I also want to add another suite for home use? There is no clear cut dividing line between work and home; they bleed into each other. I may not need the full MSO for home use, but I need the compatibility. That I don't have.
        • I'm a computer programmer. Why would I ever need to use Office ?

          I use vim as my editor and I write python code. I not no typist or a secretary. Office is for secretaries or office assistance.
          • What about Excel?

            Data mining, performance monitoring of code or SQL queries? I get the Word idea, but Access/Excel/Visio are three key tools for the power users that seem to be forgotten.
          • data mining

            Vizio's utility is debatable, but Excel and Access are no longer leading edge for data. SAS, Cognos, R, and sure, maybe put all those cute charts in an Excel sheet for the MBAs, but if you're using Access or Excel, you're living in the last decade.

            I work in data everyday and I hardly ever touch Office. It's for MBAs to make lists, for hacks to create 'databases' and for executives to read reports. They're not tools for 'serious work'.
          • you're behind on Excel BI tools

            look at the 2013 powerview/pivot tools, the new geo tools, the superb GeoFlow 3D dataviz - all start in Excel & give you great data exploration and visualisation
          • What about it?

            As a programmer all I can say is Access should be forgotten.
          • A computer programmer who doesn't work with specs

            Here is to hoping I never have to work with you.

            I always find it amusing when a co-worker asks me to open an office document because it won't open correctly on their iPad.

            Furthermore, this guys comments on "proper work" can be done just as easily on the pc is idiotic. Anything you can do on a tablet can be done just as easily (usually easier) on a pc. What exactly can you do on a tablet that you can't do on a normal pc? I am not aware of anything.
          • Office won't open properly on my iPad

            But when I put a document on SkyDrive directly from Office(Word) and look at that document on SkyDrive using the Microsoft iPad SkyDrive app I would hope that it would format correctly and look right. PDF works. By Microsoft. So why doesn't Word?
          • Portability

            It's not so much about "what" you can do, as it is "where" you can do it.

            Field workers can't easily carry around a "normal PC," but they can a tablet. The workforce is changing from cubicle-moles to highly mobile. That is evident in the big push to BYOD. Yes, much of the work can be done on a notebook. However, the battery life is not as good as a tablet.

            Not everyone does the same type of "work," and each person's needs are different. Just because one (or even a group) of people don't see any use for something doesn't mean nobody has a use for it.
          • I didn't get that

            You can't do it on a tablet. But it's a whole lot easier on a PC. I found I could work on excel or word files fine with Kingsoft office on my phone. But I was only adding a little data in a few cells. If I really needed to do more it would surely be easier on my desk or laptop. I'm going to be buying a full size tablet soon, but even then it's only for play. I find it's still easier to do real work (not that I need to anymore) on a keyboard that is bigger than the software thing that pops up on a little 10" screen. I mean even my laptop keyboard is 14" wide and has all the keys. I agree with MB-R, to me a tablet is a toy. But I'm not everyone, and some may want or need Office. So much the better if they can get it. And I must say this. I'm for all software being available to all formats. As soon as we start saying "no it doesn't need it" we stop moving forward.
          • OOOPS

            Should have been....You "can" do it on a tablet.
          • Playing solitare on the toilet.

            Or reading in bed. Or looking up an actor on IMDB while watching a movie on the sofa. Or going from any one of those locations to any other of those locations. My PC is not in any of those rooms, and cannot be held in one hand.
          • Collaboration

            I switched from LaTeX (written in Vim) to MS Office after I graduated and started doing real work instead of student assignments. The reason is collaboration. As a student writing my own papers, Vim/LaTeX was fine. Trying to collaborate with colleagues using TeX requires using something like a revision control system, and is still very slow and primitive compared with collaboration using MS Office.

            LaTeX is still better for mathematics, but with Office 2013 the difference is almost marginal. For the keyboard, there is a third-party utility that allows Vim key bindings to be used in Word (also possible with AutoHotkey). For collaboration, MS Office leaves everything else in the dust, and that is why it will likely remain the market leader for a very long time, and essential to most people who produce documents and presentations. Old-school TeX lovers disagree, but the weaknesses in their presentations, especially the time they waste making small changes, are ever more obvious to those of us who have switched to Office.

            For coding, I have mostly switched to MS Visual Studio (where add-ons also allow Vim keybindings to be used) or the inbuilt editors in statistical packages I use. Vim still has its advantages, though, so I still reach for it from time to time.
          • LOL...

            "I not no typist or a secretary"

            I'll bet your boss is happy about that.
        • Re: I need MSOffice (all of it, not just W/E/P) for work

          Then you don't need a tablet. No tablet will work for you. Simple as that and well explained by the author.
        • Truth be known

          Actually your kids need to start working with Google Docs if they're not already in K-12. 72% of the top universities in America use Google Docs which is a cloud productivity suite. These are names like Harvard, Yale, Northwestern, Brown, Georgetown and on and on.

          You might want to pick up a copy of Quickoffice Pro HD for your tablet because Google bought them to offer full productivity suite functionality that on your tablet that now syncs to Google Drive (Docs).
          Dave Lalande
          • Only my limited sample but.....

            My daughter is going into senior year in college and they offer a deep discount student license for MS Office thru campus store - standard recommendation, especially for business students. My son starts at a different major Uni next year and just got an Office 365 for Students offer - $79.95 for 4 year license ($20 per year) with ability to use on up to two machines (PC or Mac). Word, Excel, PPT, Outlook, OneNote, upgrades, and extra Skydrive storage.

            I told him he needs to get his degree before the license expires :-) Seems like an even better deal for his dad with this incentive factored in....
        • Documentation?

          So you don't use visio for flow chart, network diagrams? You don't use Excel or MS Word for Documenting systems and programs? Really? I would hate to debug your spaghetti code