Will Office 2010 put Google Apps in its place?

Microsoft Office 2010 alternate top story badgeWelcome back, Microsoft. After a few years of getting your butt kicked by Google, it's nice to see you waking up from your monopolistic slumber. You seem to finally get it that both Windows and Office don't have indefinite or guaranteed futures, and you're willing to hang yourself out over the edge a bit to keep them both relevant.

This week, Office 2010, the new version of Microsoft's productivity suite, is being shown to developers and media this week at the company's Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans. It includes browser-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote that should forever banish bitter memories of Microsoft's initially half-hearted online productivity efforts.

Beyond the cosmetic

Microsoft has apparently moved on from making change for change's sake [cough, Office 2007, cough], and now seems to finally recognize that the way we work is changing in an increasingly mobile, broadband-enabled, and collaborative world. The company's three-screens strategy that dictates seamless integration across desktops, browsers and mobile devices signals a merciful break from its historic adherence to the PC.

I'll reserve final judgment until I bring home my spanking new copy sometime next year, but if early indications mean anything, Microsoft is digging beneath the surface and giving us something more fundamental than the software equivalent of a fresh coat of paint.

I like that. There's nothing more yawn-inducing than another evolutionary introduction of an evolutionary product that simply mimics design decisions made 15 or 20 years earlier. In shaking up the very foundation of Office, Microsoft holds out hope that the way we string words together, crunch numbers, inspire others, and stay connected to them will evolve beyond the PC era paradigm of categorized apps on a hard drive and toward truly integrated services wherever they're needed.

Facing new competition

This seeming reawakening couldn't come a moment too soon. Google's gotten a ton of great press for getting the Web services zeitgeist, and for delivering a suite of online apps that, if they don't approach Office for outright functionality, provide a decent subset of features for the right price -- namely, free. Other no-cost alternatives, like OpenOffice.org and Zoho, have also garnered headlines for delivering a near-Office experience without the licensing headaches.

Headlines are one thing, reality is quite another. If these alternatives were as perfect as some claim, we'd all be using them now. Much to the freebie vendors' chagrin, that's not quite how it's worked out. Despite looking like a sleeping, elderly uncle, Office continues to rake in the cash ($16 billion per year) and remains the preferred productivity toolset for at least 80% of businesses. We all may play around with Google Docs, using it for some lightweight note-taking and archiving. But we're still doing the heavy lifting in Office, and sharing the final results as attachments. Web-based tools are a nice complement to the tried and true Office suite, but in their present state of evolution, they're hardly ready to take Microsoft on. Like it or not, the world runs on Office, and slowly growing competition from freebie and Web competitors notwithstanding, this isn't about to change anytime soon.

Of course, it's entirely possible that Microsoft will pull another Vista and dump an under-performing chunk of code on the world. But if it lives up to the early hype, Office 2010 could rank alongside Windows 7 as an example of a leaner, meaner, more relevant Microsoft than we've seen in years.

Last month, I shared a few wishes for Office 2010 in an open letter to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. I'm under no illusion that either Mr. Ballmer, a team of his developers in Redmond, or even the Microsoft campus janitorial staff tracks my every published word and integrates every last suggestion into each subsequent release. But I'm still encouraged to see the suite heading in more or less the same direction I had hoped. Which means a Web interface that recognizes the need to move data seamlessly between environments -- desktop, Web, and mobile -- and a recognition that today's Office alternatives fail miserably in that regard.

Bottom line: The alternatives suck

Which likely explains why I haven't switched my own workflow exclusively over to Google Apps, and have no intention of doing so. Please don't get me wrong: I'm all for collaboration. My Kindergarten teacher taught me how to play nicely with others, and to this day I spend much of my time working interactively with clients and colleagues as we collectively -- and almost always remotely -- work together to turn ideas into finished and publishable products.

To be fair, Google Apps is a decent collaborative toolset that I'd love to use more. Unfortunately, Corporate America hasn't drunk Google's Kool-Aid. So every time I start a new project with enterprise clients and colleagues, I end up talking to myself because corporate IT has no intention of dumping Office, tossing its corporate data into the cloud and having its employees work exclusively within the browser.

Even if I were working alone, I'd expect to get laughed out of the room if I submitted an article as a Google Docs document. Until the world evolves beyond Microsoft's productivity world view, I'm pretty much in a world of my own if I choose to live exclusively in a non-Microsoft, Web app world. Even if more companies and individuals come on board (and there's no sign that they're shifting en masse) I'm also not too keen on having other folks make live changes to something I've worked on for weeks. Call me a Luddite, but there's something comforting about keeping an archival version of a document on a local drive that only I can access and modify. Collaboration is a great way to unleash the power of the collective, but there are limits.

Unlike its wannabe productivity suite competitors, Microsoft has lived both sides of the equation. It wrote the book on desktop-based workflow, and is better positioned than any player (yes, even Google) to marry the way we've always worked to the way we'll work in future. Say what you want about Microsoft, but don't call it irrelevant anymore.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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