Office 2010 awaits us later this year, and I've been wondering what it could possibly offer customers that would compel us to buy or upgrade to this software. Office software in general progressed about as far as most of us needed it to go somewhere in the 90s. Since then it's been race to add the most bells and whistles, most of which go unused. That's why I was surprised when I saw this InformationWeek article about record downloads of Office 2010 beta software.
In spite of this news, I believe with an ever-increasing number of low-cost and free alternatives, it seems as though in 2010 Microsoft might be at the cross-roads with its Office Suite.
A Look Back At the Last Release
When Microsoft decided to overhaul the Office interface in 2007 by switching from a menu/toolbar interface to the ribbon interface, I was highly skeptical. The result was taking what was fuzzy and familiar and giving us something new. Change in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but as I wrote in a review at the time, I felt they sacrificed usability at the alter of design orthodoxy. In an effort to make it completely new, they moved and shifted things in a way that didn't make sense to me just to fit with the new philosophy.
In 2010, it's probably going to be less about design, and more about the growing number of free and lower-cost competitors. The most obvious one being Google Docs, and while it can be considered a looming threat to to Microsoft dominance because of its reach, it is still lacks what I consider some basic functionality such as a way to identify reviewers (names and colors would help) and a commenting tool. OpenOffice is a much more formidable foe, but still has surprisingly lackluster marketshare and it's bound to the desktop. There's also Zoho and Acrobat.com and many others, too numerous to mention. And don't forger, all of these offerings could be supplanted by collaboration tools that enable you to write and share documents independent of an office tool. So where does that leave a company like Microsoft that counts on selling massive numbers of licenses?
Is The Office Business Going to Shrink?
Companies probably have no real reason to upgrade from an earlier version of Office if it's working fine for them, yet it's hard to dismiss the curiosity factor reflected in the number of Beta downloads Microsoft has reported. The question remains whether these numbers are exaggerated, or even if they're not if they will translate into actual sales down the road.
It's one thing to try software for free, it's another to shell out the dough and buy it. New pricing reported in the InfoWorld article suggests they have come down quite a bit from previous years, but why pay anything if you can get the functionality you need for free or a very reasonable fee?
Microsoft will offer an online version too, but my guess is they need robust desktop sales to maintain profits, and computing is clearly moving away from that model. This version is going to be an awfully tough sell for Microsoft and the Office suite which for so long has helped anchor its product line and profit margin could be at a critical juncture, record Beta downloads or not.