Why is Microsoft obsessed with putting Office on tablets?

Oh, Bill, people don't want Office on their iPads. Or Nexus 7s. Or maybe even their Surfaces.
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor

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.

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