When Office dies, what will Microsoft replace it with?

Nothing lasts forever. Office may be a huge money-spinner for Microsoft, but what's next?
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor
Skype logo
Skype. More Office-y than Office.

Nothing lasts forever.

History is replete with examples of products that have fallen into obsolescence. Some examples? How about VHS recorders, typewriters, quill pens, CDs, photographic film, movie rental stores, public pay phones, and so on.

As a society, we like finding new ways to do stuff.

So although the Office franchise seems unassailable in its vast ubiquity (well, for business use anyway), will it last forever? Obviously not -- something will happen to kill it off.


If you're Microsoft, what do you replace Office with? Or rather, what do you replace office revenues with? Replacing a product when it becomes obsolete isn't an issue of just evolving the product -- it's about pivoting so that you produce a different kind of product for a different kind of market.

We know that Microsoft wants to become a different kind of business -- namely a device and services business. What they want to do is take Office over to that new business with them.

I think that idea is fundamentally flawed because post-PC devices are not about work, they are about a user's "digital life", and as such Office only has as small role to play in this for a subset of users. That's the pressure of a creeping obsolescence in the post-PC era.

Take BlackBerry as an example. At the moment, it's looking like the only product they have which is appealing to the market of the post-PC era is BBM. Even then BBM is under significant pressure from WhatsApp, LINE, iMessage, Google Hangouts, and others -- all of which are more mature products that BBM is trying to compete with.

BlackBerry had an enterprise capability that was unassailably good, but over time people worked out they could get a roughly good enough equivalent elsewhere. BlackBerry used to offer the only practical way of getting emails when mobile. BlackBerry's distinction used to be great management (BES was doing MDM before we started talking about MDM), and a secure network. That distinction used to be significant, and now its not because it went through a process of steadily being chipped away over time. Once people learn that they can do without a certain thing, the job of purveying that certain thing becomes harder.

Similarly with Office, that used to be the only tool in town for the enterprise, and now it's not. Plus, the distinction of Office is that it can do anything and everything. Other products aren't quite a kitchen sink-esque. But, if you learn to make do with a small subset of features -- well, that's starting to look rather like BlackBerry's problem again.

Anyway, my view is that Office is on a slide. But that's OK if you have something to replace it with.


I do think Microsoft has got a fantastic product that it can use to replace Office.

It's Skype.

Purchased in May 2011 for $8.5 billion, Skype fits so much more elegantly into the post-PC era than Office that I can easily see Microsoft's dominant product lines being Windows and Skype, rather than Windows and Office.

(Readers may care to note that the Nokia deal only cost $7.2 billion.)

Our current post-PC era is all about relationships and not about work and as a result Skype is a much better fit. (You can't use Skype without having someone to talk to or with, after all.)

It also works for both domestic and business use. My ZDNet colleague Larry Dignan wrote at the beginning of this year how high-end video conferencing kit was being disrupted by things like Skype. This is the first dimension of its ubiquity. And it's an easy ubiquity. Yes, Office can be made to work in domestic settings, but for most people it makes little sense. With Skype, someone can flow from using it at the office to using it at home without heartache.

The other genius move Microsoft has made is to get Skype everywhere -- this being the second dimension of its ubiquity. I wonder how much of this is judgement rather than luck -- after all, Microsoft seems to be keeping (proper) Office as a Windows exclusive rather than getting their finger out and getting it working in full over on iOS and Android, whereas Skype was already on everything when they bought it.

It doesn't matter what device you use, where you are, or "when" you are, Skype is there with you. This maintains two important rules of post-PC offerings -- namely be "always available", and "always connected".

Peculiarly though, although we know that BlackBerry's transition from being an enterprise business to being an "everyone" business failed, the only thing they do that makes any sense is BBM. Which is rather like Skype in that BBM and Skype are both good relationship-centric, post-PC products.

What BlackBerry mucked up with BBM was letting competitors get successful. BBM isn't the best on the market anymore, and as a company it's unlikely BlackBerry has any clout left to become top dog again. (This becomes an unwinnable scenario if a major player acquires one of the instant messaging platforms.)

Skype, today, is in the fortunate position of being the only game in town and gets to enjoy all of the network benefits that provides.

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

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