Microsoft's Office suite is better and more capable than Apple's iWork productivity suite. There's no doubt about that. The interesting thing, however, is that it won't matter. Even though Microsoft would like to convince us otherwise, the better product will lose.
When I think about what makes an iPad the quintessential modern tablet, I think about its basic design elements. An iPad is:
- Clean in design. Not cluttered with ports, say USB, that imply usage patterns that can be achieved in other ways. For example, iCloud.
- Usable with only touch and gestures. It can be used with a stylus, but a stylus isn't necessary.
- Usable with a Bluetooth keyboard, but a physical keyboard isn't necessary.
- Always available with a touch. Doesn't need to be turned on and off or booted up very often.
- A wireless only device; no Ethernet cables.
- Designed to use apps don't depend on or need a highly visible file system. Apps generally don't use the data from other apps.
- Focused on lightweight apps, not historically complex apps found on the desktop Mac or PC.
It's that last item that fits into my thinking about the future of the iPad and tablets in general. The meme of the tablet is simplicity. Therefore, there is a fundamental conflict between complex productivity apps and the design principles of a tablet.
Microsoft has sought to strategically fight, in a losing battle I believe, the fundamental design concepts of the modern tablet listed above. Microsoft's strategy has been to preserve Windows and Office as cash cows, and therefore, it designed the Surface to be a tablet that runs that software as well as possible.
In order to justify that Hail Mary strategy, Microsoft points out that MS Office is head and shoulders above the lightweight, inferior productivity suite from Apple, iWork. And it is!
The weakness in that strategy, however, is that a productivity suite on a modern tablet is designed to be lightweight.
The Weight of History
History, I believe, will show that MS Office is tied to a dying platform. Tablet sales will surpass PC sales in a few years, and there is no reversing this trend. The sales curves will continue to diverge. Other factors have and will continue to come into play.
- PCs will be the rare case of the truck, in Steve Jobs's analogy, as opposed to the mass market car.
- The idea of free OS and productivity software is what it means to own an iPad, to take a line from Tim Cook.
- By focusing on consumer electronics as its bread and butter instead of boutique UNIX workstations, Apple taps into buyers who have their own purchase authority. They don't need approval from a business supervisor.
- The only people who will be buying MS Office will be businesses who are spending someone else's money.
- Businesses are always looking to cut costs or pass the cost on to the employees: Home offices, home Internet, BYOD, and so on.
I should point out that when you buy a Microsoft Surface 2, based on ARM, the follow-on to the Surface RT, you get a free version of MS Office (Office 2013 RT) that now includes Outlook, but the productivity apps are less capable than the full MS Office. The Surface RT/2 is a D.O.A. product. If you buy a Surface Pro 2 which starts a $900, you'll pay extra for the full X86 version of MS Office Home and Business, about $220.
Better But Not More Pervasive
In time, quantity will overcome quality. Sure, there will be a few businesses who depend on Excel and Word for special kinds of work. Even our own Dave Hamilton told me this morning that when he needs to set up even a simple spreadsheet, it's much easier to do it in Excel on a Mac than Numbers on an iPad.
It doesn't matter. Non-expert users by the hundreds of millions will find a way to get their works done with their favorite tablet as PCs become more and more rare. So the argument that you can't get any real work done on an iPad and iWork wins now but fails over the long run.
I should also note that the fact that Apple has dumbed down the Mac versions of iWork doesn't mean Apple is giving up the battle. I've written software my entire technical career, and I can attest to the fact that if you're going to carry two versions of an app forward in time, together, in sync, for different platforms, they must first have a common code base. Only after code commonality is achieved can features be reliably added to both platforms. It's a step back in order to take two steps forward.
In time, tablets will become so pervasive that the sense of the whole situation will be that, sure, MS Office is a formidable product, head and shoulders above iWork. But it's tied to a dying platform, and Microsoft has given themselves no practical, technical path forward. And so MS Office will settle into being a very niche, low volume product while the tablet era explodes into all pervasive use. And on those iPads will be a steadily improving, but lightweight and free productivity apps that are good enough and getting better.
That will drive decisions about standards, publishing, file exchange and other tablet era usage patterns in business and government. That's exactly what happend to the ostracized Mac in the 90s, but in reverse.
As Don Meredith used to say on Monday Night Football at the end of the game when it was certain one team would lose: "Turn out the lights, the party's over."
iPad Air image via Apple.