Office 2010: Desktop Heavyweight, Online Weakling

Microsoft's suite upgrade is solid. But the accompanying Web Apps are surprisingly puny.

By  |  Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 8:00 am

If you simply click on a document’s name in the file manager, it gets opened in a preview mode that requires an extra click before you can edit it. A Microsoft representative told me this decision was made because the preview mode is speedier, and often all that people need; I also found that the previews preserved some formatting that didn’t show up in editing mode.

All the apps feature buttons that let you open the current document in the desktop version of the program in question. But the buttons are there in all browsers even though the feature only works in Internet Explorer. It’s also not entirely clear why you’d be working in a hobbled Web App in the first place if your computer was equipped with a desktop copy of Office.

What Gives, Microsoft?

Why did Microsoft create such meager Web-based version of some of its flagship products? Psychoanalyzing a humongous software company isn’t easy, but I’m going to try.

For several years, I’ve been discussing Web-based office suites with Microsoft executives responsible for Office. Up until the announcement of the Web Apps, nearly all of that conversation involved said executives rejecting the idea of browser-based suites becoming a serious challenge to Office in its traditional form.

They had a point, of course: Google Docs and Zoho are both impressive pieces of work, but when it comes to precision formatting and other power-user features they remain profoundly uncompetitive with Office 2010, in part because so much of what Office offers still can’t be replicated in a browser. As Web-based services, they’re also built to be used when you’ve got an Internet connection, which is a problem for virtually anyone who uses a laptop outside the home or office. (Google even abandoned Docs’ limited, Gears-based offline features recently.)

But Microsoft’s refusal to take Google and Zoho seriously wasn’t based purely on a dispassionate analysis of the situation. For a company with a decades-old, insanely successful business model of selling packaged software for hundreds of dollars a pop, the notion that far less sophisticated free services might pose an existential threat must seem either laughable or terrifying. In either case, it’s not surprising that the company chose to scoff at it publicly.

Once Microsoft revealed its plans for a Web-based Office in October 2008, the Redmondians I talked with were less dismissive about Web productivity apps…but only slightly so. They adopted a “software plus services” mantra, with desktop Office remaining preeminent and the Web Apps taking a decidedly secondary role. (Note that the company doesn’t even talk about “software and services,” let alone “services and software.”)

Consequently, it’s painfully obvious that the overarching design goal for the Web Apps wasn’t to build a better online suite than Google or Zoho–it was to buttress Office 2010. “Well, there you go,” the online versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint fairly shout. “Didn’t we tell you that browser-based services can’t compete with traditional software?”

The strategy might work in the short term–but it’s not an embrace of a Web-based future. If Google turns out to be right in maintaining that businesses will conclude that productivity should move to the cloud, Microsoft’s only rational option is to do everything in its power to create an online suite that’s as compelling as Office has been for the past twenty years. Instead, it seems to be doubling down on Office’s desktop heritage.

It’s as if 1980s software titans like Lotus and WordPerfect had responded to Excel and Word with fundamentally unambitious, unsatisfying Windows of their cash-cow DOS apps. Which, come to think of it, they did.

Of course, I could be misreading this. Maybe Microsoft’s goal with the Web Apps is to get something out there that it can build upon. The consumer versions are part of Windows Live: Microsoft has a good track record of releasing regular meaty “waves” of Live upgrades, and says that the Web Apps will be part of them from now on.

Let’s hope so–even if Office in packaged-software form remains the dominant productivity suite for another decade or two. Wouldn’t both Microsoft and Microsoft customers be better off if the online suite with the best chance of knocking off Office was Office?



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11 Comments For This Post

  1. Mike Cerm Says:

    Google Docs and Zoho just aren’t a threat to Microsoft. Until internet connectivity is cheap and ubiquitous, which they aren’t and won’t ever be (if the wireless carriers have their way), Office is going to continue to dominate. Even if connectivity weren’t an issue, which it is, Google Doc and Zoho don’t offer enough to have anyone seriously considering going totally Office-free. College students and professionals alike need to be able to double-click on a Word doc and have it open, regardless of whether they’re in-range of Wi-Fi.

    For a while, it looked like OpenOffice was gaining steam; it’s definitely closer to full-featured than the online alternatives, with the added benefit that it works offline. However, since upping their game with Office 2007, and pushing even further with 2010, Microsoft has really left OpenOffice in the dust. Sure, it’s not bad for free, but it’s got more in common with Office 2000 than with Office 2010.

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    I was excited by, too–it felt like the Firefox of office suites–but am sorry that it’s atrophied somewhat.


  3. heulenwolf Says:

    There was always something not quite right with OpenOffice’s handling and MS file formats that made it not worth it in a business environment. A missed page break in a 100 page document, some lost text formatting, similar features with different names buried in different sub-sub menus than they are in the MS equivalent all cost time even though they’re small issues. At $100-150/hr, all it takes is a few wasted hours of an engineer’s or manager’s time over several years to make that $499 price tag seem like a steal.

    Google docs is overblown. People talk it up like its the an Office competitor but its really not. There’s so much it can’t do that’s necessary in an office environment. Its handy for quickly viewing docs I’ve been gmailed and more convenient in the rare case of exchanging files in my personal life but my company would never put their IP on Google’s servers nor make access to critical documents so completely dependent upon Google’s continuing operation nor our ISP. It really isn’t a threat to Office in my corporate environment.

  4. IcyFog Says:

    When I can I use alternatives to Microsoft Office. For what I need, Google Docs and are just fine.
    In my opinion there’s too much crud in Office 2007. Frankly instead of making communication easier, Microsoft throws up barriers making communication harder and more dfficult.

  5. tben Says:

    I agree with IcyFog; Microsoft Office is too bloated. I’m sure every feature in Microsoft Office someone out there just loves and uses everyday, but, for most of us, Openoffice is probably good enough, and it’s free.
    Now if you are someone who needs that document to look it’s absolute best and need all the advanced tools, then Microsoft Office is the way to go.
    Oh, and did I mention Open Office is….free? 🙂

  6. colinnwn Says:

    @Mike Cerm
    Personally I think Office 2007 and 2010 aren’t much of an upgrade from 2003. It has just slowed my productivity down some learning the new ribbon, which more than half the time doesn’t have the option I need, and I have to open the popout of the old UI menu boxes. I’m sure eventually it will become second nature. Access has some cool new features in 2007.

    I imagine the same can be said of professionals transitioning from 2003 to 2007 or 2010. With a couple months experience, an intelligent person should be able to recover to normal productivity with Office 2007 or OpenOffice. But if a company chooses to switch wholesale to OpenOffice, your concern about messed up formatting shouldn’t be a big problem. The company should also switch to native ODF file formats, and only convert to Office formats when sending docs out of the company.

  7. Sarkazein Says:

    As a developer, the most important part of the Office Suite has always been the ability to integrate and automate nearly every aspect of every application, either using VBA within the apps themselves or through COM interop in the language of my choice. It’s so incredibly easy to do (for a coder) and so useful that with very few exceptions, I think I’ve used Office for that purpose in roughly 90% of the contracts I’ve done over the years.

    That’s the real appeal of the Office line of products and it has been since Office 4.3 (the one before Office 95). Yes, there are a ton of highly specialized features in most of these apps that will appeal only to the minority, but nearly everyone uses some part of Office daily in a professional environment, and being able to integrate directly with that to provide automated functionality more than makes up for the cost in nearly every situation.

  8. Resuna Says:

    There’s a reason menus and dialog boxes are universally used. They work. They’re discoverable. They’re predictable. You don’t have to be an expert user of a program to use it effectively.

    If your menus are badly organized and cluttered, reorganize them. Replacing them with a non-discoverable “ribbon” and “backstage view” is just abusing your customers.

  9. mtcoder Says:

    @ribbon haters. The ribbon is for tablets. The whole reason MS built / designed the Ribbon system is for tablets its touch friendly. You can easily reach 90% of all tools with just tapping the screen. Trying to do menu drag and drop on touch screens is much harder. Also the ribbon is super fast if you learn the short cuts. For example tap alt, press n then i and you get insert hyperlink. Doesn’t seem like a big deal till you have a programmable keyboard and you can program all those short cuts to keys. I have to do a bunch of images in my word documents. I have my “function 1” key Not f1 but function 1 key set to do alt, n, p and it brings up my insert pictures dialog box. Play around with it just press Alt key and it will bring them all up. But the main reason for ribbon is touch screen. Same reason they changed how file paths are shown in Windows 7.

    Now for office 2010 and its trimmed down web parts. I think it’s more of get it out and let the developers build and comment on what they want along with normal users.

    biggest issue with going pure cloud is the cloud goes down your just F-ed. Think about what last year where Gmail was down for what was about 1-2 days depending on your location. Not having mail for 2 days at my former employer would cost about 2 million + dollars in revenue a day. So when you have a 4 million dollar glitch the CEO’s aren’t happy with IT.
    That is why Google docs works great for the small business but not the large scale guys. Not to mention security there is someone at Google who has full access to the files, or at least a chunk of the files, how much money to buy him off for your industry trade secrets? Pay him a few million and a house in cancun for the recipe to super secret sauce of greatness that puts the company out of being worth millions to worth nothing. Cause the cloud was violated. Sure you might get the guy and send him to jail for years and might get google to pay out the bucks to make the CEOs happy, but the little guy at the sauce factory just gets screwed.

    Just a bit to much risk. I mean my former company paid for military escort when we moved a mainframe from one building across the state to another one, just cause they didn’t want someone to hijack the truck taking the mainframe. No way in hell they let that data put “globably” hosted in a cloud.

    Another part of this is Microsoft is working hard on silverlight desktop integration, there is a part that deals with COM access from the browser further streamlining. They could be working / waiting to streamline the online office components into Silverlight more. Think about a silverlight application with full excel features, or using native word format for typing into text fields.
    So lots of possibliities.

  10. Backlin Says:

    colinnwn: I used to suffer from decreased productivity with the Ribbon as well. It was released just as I got out of my high school office class, so I had to re-learn some of the shortcuts. Luckily, most of the ones from Office 2003 were still there. After about two weeks of re-learning (on my own time), I grown to love the Ribbon.

  11. robsoles Says:

    hmmf, abandoned M$ products over a year ago and haven’t been happier.

    OpenOffice has replaced M$ nonsense at work – if you can’t get it to format correctly in OO then you are the problem. NO, I don’t work for nor contribute in anyway to the openoffice team. I just appreciate a good effort when I see one:

    Open ANY file format (M$ make a new one and OO just incorporate it), output ANYTHING as a PDF with no more installation than OO alone. Print ANYTHING etc etc.

    I would not ask my employer to store his data (live or backup) on anyone’s equipment but his own – a couple of tiny little targets for hackers as opposed to a series of highlighted targets all over the globe advertising their brilliance, security and “solid”ness at every opportunity.

    Take your M$Office and kindly shove it. Ubuntu + OO + Community make robsoles a happy guy!

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