Microsoft Office and the Battle for Mobile Computing

19Feb13

Everyone I know who owns or uses an Apple iPad absolutely loves it. In the three years since its introduction, Apple’s tablet computer continues to dominate the market for mobile, touch-based computing. People who “hate computers” love their iPads, and even wonky open-source-programmer-types have to admit that the device works well and is fun to use.

The popularity of the iPad has spawned the idea of a “post-PC” era of personal computing. A torrent of tech articles and blog posts reinforces the notion that devices like the iPad and various services lumped under the term “cloud computing” will render the traditional PC obsolete.

This is a problem for Apple’s arch-rival Microsoft. For over twenty years, they’ve made billions selling software licenses for the Windows PC operating system and the Microsoft Office suite of applications, which for years have been the standards for business computing. As outlined in a previous post, Microsoft stayed out of the cutthroat PC hardware business while making money on virtually every sale.

Things have changed, and now Microsoft needs to adapt. Tech writers have all sorts of advice for the software giant, but one idea that keeps popping up is that Microsoft has to produce a version of Microsoft Office for the iPad. The lack of Office on the iPad is the most glaring “hole” in their software portfolio, and some folks say that Microsoft is losing tons of money by not selling a version of Office for the popular device.

My theory is that if Microsoft does come out with Office for the iPad, it will signal their admission that Apple is going to be the dominant player in the mobile computing market with regards to operating systems and hardware. My thinking is that they’re not quite ready to concede this point, especially considering that the mobile market is where future growth lies.

Think about it. If Office were made available for the iPad right now, Microsoft would certainly sell millions of copies of it. I’d guess that over half the iPad owners out there would purchase it, even if it sold for, say, $50 or more, which would make it one of the pricier iPad apps. This would be a serious revenue bump for Microsoft, but it would have other, less desirable consequences for them. First, the iPad would become a full-fledged business productivity tool, and there would be far less of a need to consider alternative systems. Second, anybody holding off on getting an iPad because of their need to use Office would probably get one.

This would be a serious problem for Microsoft’s own mobile computing initiatives. Though late to the game, Microsoft has been hard at work retooling its Windows operating system for touch-based systems and has started producing its own tablet hardware. A friend of mine recently showed me his brand-new Microsoft Surface Pro running Windows 8. The device has gotten mixed reviews so far, but in the short time I was able to examine the device, it struck me as particularly impressive. Unlike so much PC hardware out there, the Surface is beautifully made with excellent fit and finish. The touch-based user interface, while still a bit foreign to me, is fast, responsive, and looks great. Unlike the iPad, the Surface allows for simple things like USB connectivity that Apple has so far resisted with their portable devices. The Surface Pro costs more than a comparable iPad, but it can run any modern Windows application.

This is the device that Microsoft wants mobile business users to run Office on. By holding off on producing a version of Office for iPad, the Surface becomes the viable tablet alternative for folks who need to run Office and other Windows legacy applications. To me, this is the only leverage they have in keeping the iPad from dominating mobile computing for the foreseeable future. We’ll have to wait and see—I could be dead wrong and see Office for iPad appearing next week. If that happens, though, the Post-PC computing landscape will likely be Apple’s domain.

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3 Responses to “Microsoft Office and the Battle for Mobile Computing”

  1. 1 Dean Severson

    After having used my Microsoft Surface for a week or two now, I follow what you are saying about Microsoft Office vs the iPad. For $100 I got Office 365 -that’s and annual fee :-/
    Office 365 allows you to (and is no doubt designed to) store your docs in your “Sky Drive”. I was a bit skeptical at first but as I sit here on vacation with the need to edit a document which I started on my home machine I am very glad to see that doc in my Sky drive. I see this as the direction Microsoft wants to take Office and the Surface.
    I am liking it.

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