Gauging the impact of the Office 14 delay

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The Microsoft Business Division is responsible for about 29% of that company's revenue -- at least it was during the last quarter -- and 90% of that contribution comes from the sale of Microsoft Office-branded products, including its principal applications suite. Though it continues to be the world's dominant platform for everyday document production and management by a comical margin, and though a key element of the company's interoperability strategy relies on that platform's latest update, CEO Steve Ballmer not-so-inadvertently revealed earlier today that Office 14 will not be released during the first half of this year as originally "leaked" to journalists, but instead, potentially as late as the second half of 2010.

So is user dependence upon Office stable enough to carry the 2007 edition -- which did, after all, include a strikingly complete makeover -- for another year or longer?

"Any delay in updates to any of Microsoft's cash cows is scary news both for the company and for entire industries that base their business roadmaps on Microsoft's operating system and productivity software timetable," stated Carmi Levy, independent contributing analyst to Betanews, this afternoon.

With what has appeared to be a rapidly -- and successfully -- accelerated timetable for Windows 7 development, Microsoft has recently been perceived as a company quite willing to put the perception problems of Vista behind it. For a while, it looked like Win7 and Office 14 would be released in lockstep, for a double-whammy package that could help Microsoft regain momentum among consumers, at a time when the world's economy is at its worst state in decades, and the company could really use that double-shot-in-the-arm.

But Win7 will now have to go it alone, as Microsoft simply cannot afford the perception of even a six-month delay in its principal operating system. Will the absence of a partner steal the thunder from Win7's premiere?

"I think a lot of organizations will want to wait for both products to be out so that they can design a new desktop image around both and deploy it in a single operation," Directions on Microsoft analyst Rob Helm responded to Betanews this afternoon. "However, I don't think this will lead Microsoft to delay Windows 7 -- it's important to get Vista behind it as soon as possible. Furthermore, some organizations on Windows XP will be impatient to get off of that version, because support is being retired and some valuable Windows Server features won't work with Windows XP.

"Consequently, if anything lets the air out of the Windows 7 launch, it will be the world economic situation," Helm continued, "which is making both organizations and individuals question whether they really need new PCs. Office 14 arriving a quarter or two later will have a minor effect by comparison."

Levy believes Office 2007 continues to have enough leftover momentum from its major overhaul to hang on during the interim.

"I don't believe that simultaneous or near-simultaneous availability of a new OS and a new productivity suite is especially critical to Microsoft's fortunes," he told us. "It matters more that they get each product right -- i.e., not hobbled out of the gate, or perceived to be so a la Vista -- than the fact that they hit a particular release date or synchronized set of dates. Few Office/Windows shops will combine these upgrades, anyway, as it introduces far too much risk into the average desktop environment. Consumers' needs are a little bit less constrained by legacy, but they, too, won't hold off on a Microsoft Office purchase simply because Office 14 hasn't shipped yet. There may be some timeline shifting among leading edge consumers to adjust to new availability dates for both Windows 7 and Office 14, but for the most part, those who need Office to get work done will buy the 2007 version for as long as it's available."

Office 14 benefits, Directions' Helm believes, from not having the same onus upon it to deliver radically different functionality as Office 2007, on account of high expectations. But that said, what's holding up the software? Helm thinks it's not so much the status of the suite's principal applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, etc.) but of the new SharePoint Server, which will reportedly enable cloud-like document sharing functionality for businesses through their SharePoint sites.

"The main focus of Microsoft's development this time, I believe, is SharePoint Server, which is supposed to acquire browser-based document authoring features (analogous to Google Apps) and which is also supposed to be getting major upgrades to its search system, backup, records management, and the software development platform. Office 14 is tied to SharePoint both technically and in Microsoft's marketing plans, so it can't go out the door until that server product is done," said Helm.

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