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Microsoft Office: Latest updates enough?

By all accounts, Microsoft's just-updated Office family of products will continue the productivity suite's generation-long ownership of the space. Unfortunately, its lack of a workable alternative for iPad users could lead to longer-term erosion of the platform.

On a feature-for-feature basis, the new version of Office, previewed at a media event in San Francisco on Monday and released online as a consumer preview, is the most capable ever, with solid enhancements on a number of fronts. The newly cloud-friendly, social-enabled package no longer behaves like a box of software that caters only to one user on one PC. Office finally has connectivity and collaboration baked into its very DNA.

"This is the first round of Office designed from the get-go for Office to be a service," CEO Steve Ballmer said. "We've transformed Office to embrace design concepts shown in Windows 8 and Phone 8 and in Metro. This wave of Office is the biggest and most ambitious we've ever done."

Bridging old and new

That ambition means another round of feature set extensions to a product line that some say is already bloated. At the same time, the new Office manages to avoid shocking users with a radical interface shift. Each application seems to have successfully retained its familiar ribbons, icons, and general command structure. Office also adds support for the tile-based Metro interface that so dominates its Windows 8 and tablet/smartphone environments.

Smoothly supporting both touch-based devices and traditional keyboard and mouse-driven PCs is a tough balancing act, and at first glance it looks well executed. Notably, the new interface avoids the controversy the company faced when it introduced the ribbon as part of Office 2007, then rearranged it for no apparent reason in Office 2010.

Microsoft seems to have belatedly learned that huge installed bases — the company confirmed at its recent Worldwide Partner Conference in Toronto that over a billion people now use Office, and a new copy is sold every second — tend to like slow evolution, not change for change's sake.

All this goodness on the feature side masks a number of unfortunate misses on the platform side. Office 365, at least initially, will run only on Windows 7 and Windows 8 machines. Mac support is promised but isn't yet on any timeline. Instead of opening up Office to the widest range of devices — including non-Microsoft ones — the company has reverted to form by limiting the product's reach to the platforms it deems worthy, namely its own.

Put another way, where's Office for iPad?

Releasing software for a competitor's platform is always a dicey proposition — Microsoft, after all, harbours tablet dreams of its own with its just-announced Surface devices, and it hardly wants to be seen as helping Apple sell more hardware. But with 67 million iPads sold to-date as of Apple's most recent quarter-end, a lot of Office-using workers also carry iPads that, despite the emergence of a growing ecosystem of productivity offerings, lack a killer app that would redraw tablets as more than just consumption devices. The tablet market wants real Office, not Office Lite, and the longer it takes Microsoft to make a positive iPad move, the easier it becomes for someone else to step in and eat Redmond's tablet lunch.

Time for an upgrade

Microsoft is also sticking it to users of its legacy operating systems, as the new Office isn't supported on Windows XP and Vista. Granted, XP has been around since 2001 and it's high time for anyone still using it to move on. Users clinging to an ancient operating system probably also aren't at the front of the line to upgrade Office, either. But Vista? It may have been an acknowledged dog, but it's also relatively recent, and while Apple can often seem to get away with pushing its minions along into The Next Big Thing, Microsoft's larger, more mainstream user base hasn't had to deal with this kind of rush before. Expect significant pushback from corporate shops now looking at enforced OS upgrades sooner than they had hoped.

Moving Office firmly into the social-enabled cloud is a necessity, some would say overdue step, to keep its legacy brand relevant in the face of growing competition from low/no-cost alternatives from Google and others. But the iPad still represents a gaping vacuum for productivity. While it's understandable that Microsoft sees its mission as preserving its platforms first, it really needs to consort with the enemy - Apple - to get its productivity solutions entrenched there, too.

Even with these missteps, Microsoft's Office franchise isn't set to die out anytime soon, and even if left on autopilot, the product family will easily reap billions of dollars in annual revenues for years to come. But the game has changed, and seemingly subtle platform missteps threaten to cause a slow divergence between product and need that could eventually open the door to market irrelevance.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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