Office is coming under pressure from post-PC upstarts

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?
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor

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.

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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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