No, that new application you’re hearing about won’t replace Microsoft Office.

For two weeks straight, I’ve seen prognostications that <application> from <competitor> will replace Microsoft Office.

No. Nothing will ever replace Microsoft Office – at least for the time being for a huge chunk of business users. I know, I know… strong words – but let me explain.

While a single user who needs to simply compose their thoughts for personal use, or sometimes share them with one or two other users might be able to do so with a third-party Office document editor. Whether they save or export as an Office document, or insist that the recipients simply read it in a proprietary format (including OpenDocument), as soon as you have multiple users exchanging documents, embedding additional Office documents, using reviewing/track changes, or other complex Office features, these documents begin to fray and fall apart at the seams.

I typically see three use cases for Microsoft Office in a multiuser office setting:

  1. Simple Office document exchange between two or more users.
  2. Complex Office document exchange (use of “deep features” in Office).
  3. Custom Office document workflow between two or more users.

Even I have said in the press that the lack of Microsoft Office on the iPad has created an opportunity. However, that opportunity isn’t explicitly an opportunity for competitors. More often than not, it’s created an opportunity for the user in the sense that they haven’t had Office for the entire time they’ve had an iPad, so either they’ve simply “gone without” Office, or found alternative tools (most likely either a Web-based productivity suite or a productivity suite for their device that doesn’t include feature parity with Office for Windows or the Mac).

The users who have likely had the most “success” (using the term loosely) with replacing Office are likely the individual users I mentioned early on who are simply using Office documents as containers, not using any Office specific features to much depth, and can likely survive just using the document export features in Google Docs, iWork, or any other Web/mobile productivity suite not from Microsoft. Admittedly, Microsoft surely sees this scenario, and as such has made the Office Web Apps for consumers freely available and interconnected with SkyDrive.

For users who are simply throwing documents back and forth, but not relying either on deep features in Office document formats or the Office applications, there’s a possibility that they can switch to Google Docs, iWork, or another Office suite. But if an organization has been using Office for some time, odds are there are documents and document templates they rely upon that require actual Microsoft Office applications or even require applications that interoperate with Office, but have no direct competitor on non-Windows platforms or the Web (see Access, Visio, or InfoPath).

You’ll often hear “document fidelity” discussed when the topic of Microsoft Office comes up. This is an important thing to understand. If I give you a complex Word format document (doc or docx) to edit, and ask you to use track changes to send it back, I’m going to be a bit upset if you a) send it back to me with the changes inline because your alternative word processor doesn’t support track changes, b) mangle the document because some formatting I had wasn’t understood by your alternative word processor or c) send it back to me in a .garble document or some other document format that Word doesn’t understand. Microsoft Office documents – both the original formats and the new xml-based documents – are the lingua franca of office productivity. Third-party tools may be able to open them. What they do with them from that point on is anybody’s guess.

Surely at some point, you’ve found a Web page that was interesting to you but was in a foreign language. If you translated it using Bing or Google, you got a result that was close to, but not an exact match for, the actual translated text as a human would have performed. More importantly, if you translate the result back to the source language, the result isn’t the same as the source text was to begin with. This is the same thing that happens with Microsoft Office documents (or WordPerfect documents among some professional fields – even today). If you want to tick people off or annoy them to the point of generating passive-aggressive behavior from them, screw up the formatting or the document type of an Office document that you’re supposed to look at and hand back to them.

For many organizations today, Office isn’t something they can just swap out – they depend on features and formatting capabilities buried in the Office applications – features that sometimes it even seems like Microsoft forgets are there (like Word outlining). When you must send Office documents back and forth between users and have the formatting and document type remain consistent, there are few choices other than… Office. I’ve tried numerous third party Web and mobile Office suites, and not really found one that doesn’t break documents here or there (often in undetectable ways), or only support <feature x> if you convert it into some other proprietary format.

The final scenario for Office users is that third case. In this case, you’re talking actual server-side code (SharePoint or other) or custom Office code that reads the Office document and could actually break if a document is incorrectly formatted or submitted as the wrong document type. Much like a user who is expecting a well-formatted document to be returned from review, applications centered around client or server-side consumption of Office documents don’t handle bad formatting or incorrect documents types well (though they respond logically, rather than emotionally as many users would).

I think Office, like Windows, is at an interesting inflection point. While some consumers and a smaller percentage of businesses may want to consider (and a small amount may actually be able to consider) not using Microsoft Office, their ability to do so will be directly in relation to how broadly they use Office documents today, and how deeply into the document format and type the features they depend upon are. In addition, many Web-apps are a no-op for truly mobile users as they need the ability to work completely offline – something that Office 365, being a streamed, but completely installed version of Office 2013, can do quite well. For most organizations, replacing Office with <application> is about as likely in the short term as replacing Windows with a Mac, an iPad, or a Chromebook. It’s possible, but you may be looking at ripping out deeply embedded line-of-business applications the organization has depended upon for years just to say you got rid of Office. You’re also usually then buying into someone else’s locked in hardware ecosystem or subscription-based software ecosystem.

I think there is opportunity for someone to do an Office suite better. But I don’t think most vendors so far are focused on that. Instead, most seem to be largely aping Office with locally installed or mobile apps, or aping Office with light-featured Web apps. Nobody is really pushing the boundaries, and making collaboration better – they’re largely reimagining what we’ve been working with for 20 years. So what eventually replaces Office? I’m not sure yet – but I don’t think it looks like envelopes of text sent from one user to another, or individual silos stored in a proprietary collaboration storage bin.

  • Dolf

    You forgot the lock-in effect–users actually got used to the quirkiness of office, and know how to get stuff done by now (even with the UI terrible at times). And especially for the pros who have VBA scripts running and know the shortcuts by heart, switching costs would be immense.