Out of Office: Microsoft's confusing removal of Chrome OS's Android Office app

Google's and Microsoft's history contributed to a subpar web version of Office but a PWA version could close the gap.

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When Bill Gates famously appeared remotely at Macworld Expo in 1997 to announce that Microsoft was investing in Apple, he allayed the fear that Microsoft would discontinue Mac support for Office, the interoperability lifeline for the platform in many companies. But had Microsoft decided otherwise and even if Apple were not struggling so mightily at that time, it's hard to imagine that Apple would have reacted positively to the news of Office's withdrawal.

Nearly 25 years later, though, in a computing environment unrecognizable from those days of Microsoft hegemony, the company has decided to withdraw support for native Office apps from a platform, and its owner has reacted with applause. This strange turn of events unfolded as Microsoft noted it would no longer support the Android version of Office on Chrome OS, instead directing Chrome OS users to the web-based versions of Office. Google's reaction? Way to go!

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To better understand what led to this decision and its implications, it's helpful to review a few moves Google made years ago and Microsoft's reaction to them. The first was Google's ineffective tablet strategy. While Apple encouraged developers to fill out user interfaces for the iPad, Google focused on scaling interfaces from smartphone to tablet sizes and beyond. However, this led to a chicken-and-egg scenario in which Android tablets ran suboptimal apps and Android tablets achieved just a fraction of the market share of their pocket-sized siblings. While Samsung and Lenovo remain in the Android tablet game, Chromebooks have become Google's desktop OS of choice and have become a more attractive tablet choice in part because of Chrome OS's improving Android app compatibility story.

But that compatibility includes some quirks and inconsistencies. For example, while Chrome OS's native Chrome browser can do virtually anything its Mac or Windows counterpart can, the supported Android versions of browsers such as Edge and Firefox are not as capable as their desktop counterparts. In some cases, the web version of a service outshines the app version. On the other hand, there are apps such as Venmo that don't allow payments -- its core function -- via its website.

Google may have taken the wrong path with its Android tablet approach, but it was far savvier in the development of what was originally Google Docs, then G Suite, and now the core of Google Workspace. What the online suite lacked in Microsoft Office's depth, it made up for in free access and, particularly, collaboration features. Microsoft countered with a defeatured version of its flagship -- Office Online. To date, thought, it has not done much to advance the web version of Office (adding support for Word dictation being a notable exception), although some of that may have been due to the company's now-resolved need to bridge Edge and Chrome rendering engines. Nonetheless, the web version of Office lacks several advantages of the mobile version that had run on Chrome, notably easy offline access. In offering only the web version of Office, Microsoft has traded interface optimization for functionality.

While Google remains a champion of the web, its approval of this move would have made more sense in the early days of Chrome OS, when the operating system was a temple of web purity versus today, when it supports Android apps, Linux apps, and several indirect ways of running Windows. Hence, while there's no mention of such plans in either Microsoft's statement or Google's response, the clear implication is that Microsoft will move forward on the long-neglected web version of Office.

Particularly given Google's and Microsoft's support of Progressive Web Apps -- Google has made its new pen-friendly Chromebook app Cursive available as a PWA -- the future of the web-based version of Office (and the Workspace apps) might be PWAs. Microsoft has been experimenting with such a version on Windows since last fall. Why, then, would Microsoft revoke the Android version of Office from Chrome OS without encouraging such a migration on Chrome OS? Regardless, whatever the next steps are for Office on the web, it appears as if Google has enough of a sense of Microsoft's roadmap to approve.

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