Understanding Office

Last week I overheard two of the top Microsoft “watchers” discuss the Office group having bet against Windows 8, presumably because Office 2013 is not fully a (set of) Metro (aka, Windows Store) apps.  Ok, as much as it pains me to defend Office I’m going to do so.  I’m going to defend them because they are more right than wrong.  Especially when you take a shareholder perspective.  Not only will I defend what Office did for Windows 8, I’m going to defend some of their licensing decisions.  Oh that should be fun.

Let’s start with Office as a business, because that is at the center of making a “bet”.  Office is Microsoft’s largest and most profitable business.  Being the largest is a little transient as Windows ebbs and flows with the success or failure of various releases.  Being the most profitable has been pretty constant for years.  Many years.  If Steve Ballmer wants to get fired all he has to do is mess up the Office profit stream.  Seriously.  This profit stream is so important that even Bill Gates backed down from messing with it.  Seriously.  The Office leadership does not wake up every morning and say “What can I do today to make Windows more successful?”  They wake up and say “What can I do today to make Office more successful?”.  And as much as that pains a “Systems” guy, that is something any shareholder should be happy about.

Office has been up against four strong headwinds for over a decade.  The first has been its own success.  With near saturation of its traditional market for desktop productivity apps they have struggled to find ways to grow, or at least get existing customers to upgrade to new versions.  The primary response here has been to grow the Office suite, particularly through the creation of the Office Server products such as Sharepoint and addressing long-term weak points like collaboration.

The second headwind has been the emergence of free, or extremely inexpensive, alternatives to Office.  This started with the emergence of Open Office, though it wasn’t until Google Apps that free productivity software gained serious mind share.  Prior to Google Apps Microsoft was content to address the free/cheap consumer productivity app space with a separate suite called Microsoft Works.  The challenge from Open Office lead them to create a Works Suite that includes Microsoft Word rather than just the Works Word Processor.  For Office 2003 Microsoft created a “Student and Teacher” edition to bring Office into the academic world at low-cost.  By Office 2007, with Google Apps now a reality, Microsoft turned “Student and Teacher” into a “Home and Student” edition so they had a low-cost offering to counter Google Apps for consumers who wanted the real thing.

It’s important to current discussions to understand these efforts by Microsoft to counter free/low-cost Office competitors because they are playing out even in the latest offerings.  The Microsoft Surface and Windows RT come with Office Home and Student Edition for the same reasons it was created back in 2007.  How do you bring a free/low-cost Office to consumers without a material negative impact on Office’s margins?  Keep in mind that the vast majority of Office revenue and profit comes from sales to businesses, mostly larger businesses.  So the trick is to keep those businesses buying the more expensive and profitable editions of Office while making the same software available to consumers at low-cost.  Microsoft has tried a number of things to do this, from the composition of the suites to licensing restrictions.  In other words, Home and Student was carefully crafted so that it would not significantly cannibalize sales to businesses.  We’ll get back to this when it comes to the Microsoft Surface and Windows RT later on.

The third head-wind has been the cost of ownership associated with Office, and other products that don’t bring a strategic advantage to the customer.   This is not primarily the license price, although it is a factor, it is the associated capital and operational costs.  Microsoft was already struggling against this problem when Google brought GMail and Google Apps to the party.  As Cloud-based services they transferred much of the capital and operational expense to Google.  Microsoft had started work on bringing Exchange into a services world and Google forced them to accelerate the effort.  After several half-steps the arrival of Office 365 signaled Microsoft’s full commitment to Office as a Cloud service.  The complexity of the Office 365 licensing and pricing schemes is once again a tribute to Microsoft’s attempts to offer customers added value while preserving Office margins.  Again this plays into today’s world with Surface and Windows RT.

The fourth headwind has been the switch from formal communications such as memos and reports to informal communications such as email, instant messaging, and text messages.  This has reduced the Minutes Per Day (MpD) that users spend using Office and reduced its perceived value.  Microsoft has responded in numerous ways, from the addition of OneNote, to Lync, to the Office Web Apps, to the strategy that is playing out with Office on Surface and what is expected to appear soon on IOS and Android.  Again this will all come together in a little while.

Before I move on to what Microsoft’s overall strategy appears to be let me address the “bet against Windows 8” statement.  With Office as both Microsoft’s largest revenue and profit generator with most of that money coming from businesses, and with it being at the center of Microsoft’s real competition with Google, what topics dominated Office 2013 (a.k.a  Office 15) planning?  It wasn’t let’s build a Metro version of Office.   The discussions would have been more around topics like “How do we make the next steps in the cloud transition?”, “How do we improve collaboration?”, “How do we enable cross-organization collaboration?”,  “How do we respond to customer demands for Data Leakage Prevention capabilities”? , and many other topics that are top of (customer) mind for productivity software.   And somewhere down the list, not way down but not near the top either, was “What do we need to do to support Windows 8”?

I know this is hard to accept for those who think about Microsoft as “the Windows company”, but supporting Windows 8 was not “the high order bit”.   There has been endless discussion about how Enterprise adoption of Windows 8 is going to be light.  So how could Office, almost totally dependent on Enterprise sales, make Windows 8 the high-order bit in planning Office 2013?  Unless they wanted to drive revenue and profit towards zero, Office 2013 had to be a product that was attractive to Windows 7 customers!   Working on Windows 8 was a feature, not the driving focus, of the release.

And there is really nothing new here.  After the Windows 95/Office 95 wave the Office team became extremely resistant to betting the farm on new operating systems or other new technologies.  I can’t tell you how many frustrating conversations I had with the leadership of various parts of Office over trying to get them to adopt new storage technologies.  But that’s for another blog entry.

I think there are other factors at play as well.  Would the Office team even have had a stable enough environment to create applications as complex as Word and Excel with Metro in time for Windows 8 RTM?  Would they be full recreations, or new subsets (like OneNote MX that doesn’t have all of OneNote 2013’s functionality)?  Maybe more importantly, at the time Office 2013 planning was going on did anyone really think that Tablets would have as strong a focus as they do today?  (They didn’t.)  Or did anyone know that Windows RT wouldn’t be supporting desktop apps in general?  I think most people, all of Microsoft included, believed Windows on ARM would ship with general support for desktop apps.  So why try to prematurely shoehorn Office into Metro?  I will bet that the Office team was horrified when they became the center of a discussion about dropping support for desktop apps in Windows RT, making Office the only non-system app that runs there.

The bottom line here is that Office didn’t bet against Windows 8, they simply bet for the Office business.  And I think Surface buyers should be happy about this.  If Office had created a suite of (almost certainly subset) Metro apps then that is what the Surface and other Windows RT systems would come with.  Instead we get the full versions of Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and OneNote.  Something early Surface buyers seem thrilled about.

That brings us back to our broader discussion.  Microsoft already has a situation in which it derives only modest Office revenues from consumers while businesses provide it with huge Office revenue and profits.  It needs ways to strike major blows against the headwinds while preserving that revenue and profit.  How does its known and rumored plans do this?

Three principles are at the core for how Microsoft is approaching Office licensing and packaging.

The first is that many users, and nearly all business users, have a need for a range of Office applications and services beyond the core four (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, OneNote) applications.  So Outlook (and Exchange) have real value.  Access, Publisher, InfoPath, Project, Sharepoint, Lync, and features like IRM/DLP have value.  And so every business user is going to be licensed for some variation of Office that includes one or more of these applications or features.  And there will be offerings for bringing (some of) these to consumers as well.

The second principle is that users have multiple devices and will want to use Office from all these devices.  Their usage pattern will be linked to the type of device in question, the type of user they are (e.g., consumer vs. business), and their use of Office on other devices.

The third principle is that consumers will pay little or nothing for Office, but having offerings for them is important to maintain or increase MpD.  Or put another way, consumer use of Office protects and increases the demand for Office in businesses.  Having consumer Office offerings also enhances the attractivness of Windows and Windows Live, making it a good thing from a corporate citizen standpoint.

Put all these together and you get an explanation for Microsoft’s licensing and packaging behavior.  Packaging Office Home and Student on the Surface addresses consumer needs for free/low-cost productivity applications while protecting (both via the apps included in the suite and licensing terms) a business using Surface as a way to reduce its need to buy Office Pro (or other) licenses.  To be clear, an analysis would show that nearly everyone buying a Surface for work use already is entitled to use it for business use by way of an existing Office license the organization paid for.  Even an individual is unlikely to be impacted by these licensing terms, unless they attempt to make Surface their only computer running Office for business use (e.g., a home business).  There is a 99.999% chance that Microsoft will ignore these license violations, unless they become so common that Microsoft decides to offer a Home and Business Edition upgrade to address this scenario.

This philosophy will almost certainly spill over, as rumored, to Office on the iPad and Android tablets.  Microsoft envisions, and wants users to envision, tablets as an adjunct to a more Content Creation-oriented device running a more full featured version of Office.  They will use packaging and licensing to protect the Office revenue stream, and as a side effect keep Office availability on non-Windows tablets from becoming an excuse for (businesses) to make those tablets employee’s primary computing device.  How far will Microsoft go down this path?  The current rumors have the iPad and Android apps as document viewers for free, but requiring some other Office license for editing.  The latter would either a require code from an employer representing their licensing of Office in order to unlock the creation functionality, or an Office 365 subscription.  And, interestingly, they now have an Office 365 Home Premium subscription they will be trying to interest consumers in paying for.

The bottom line here is that Office is a business that is making decisions intended to preserve and expand its revenue and profit.  It isn’t subordinate to the Windows business, and while it does things to support Windows it won’t sacrifice itself on the Windows altar.  It is trying to adapt to the varying demands of an environment that looks extremely different today from how it looked in the 90s.  And while I think they’ve been doing it surprisingly well, that isn’t without throwing a lot of packaging and licensing confusion into the mix.

And what of Metro versions of Office apps beyond OneNote MX?  They are coming.  Just because the Office group needed to focus on the desktop apps for Office 2013, and probably need to do yet another rev on them for Office 16 (when most businesses will still be running Windows 7) The initial success of Surface and other Windows 8/RT systems represents a real opportunity for an Office MX.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see additional Metro members of the Office family in 2013!

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11 Responses to Understanding Office

  1. jhludwig says:

    this is all well reasoned and rational and you have me half convinced. But:

    1) it is not just that the office team bet against win rt. they have bet against mobile devices across the board. there are no native office apps for any mobile device. you can perhaps understand their waffling on win rt, but to completely ignore the trend towards mobile? that is an error of commission.

    2) no one at msft could have predicted how thinly supported the desktop mode would be in windows rt? that shows a remarkable lack of foresight and speculation. outsiders were certainly talking about it.

    3) office, the richest and biggest group at msft, couldn’t find a way to squeeze out mobile versions of their apps? somehow apple has done it for keynote and numbers and pages, and they have a fraction of the revenues and profits in those groups.

    • mtcoder says:

      um actually wrong on most of that.
      1.) Windows phone has native word, powerpoint, onenote, and they have apple and android version in full test mode right now. The whole problem is how to move them to other devices while keeping the enterprise bring your own device shifted towards Microsoft products / income lines. Till they got the office 365 stuff hammered out properly was to much risk to the office income scream to toss out native mobile versions of office on competing hardware aka android and apple. They also didn’t want to toss out great mobile app options for office, and insta kill their entire market for surface. Think about it why leave your galaxy for a surface if you can just buy full office for galaxy. This buys the surface some time to be in the market, get fixed / improved on, and get some pr going, before letting your competition have your golden nugget.

      2.) Most of them knew exactly how thinly it would be supported, they just didn’t let it out too much. People often forget Microsoft has things in planning and development for almost 5 years+ I mean look at windows 8, they have had some form of beta for it for almost 2 years now. Add on 1 year of coding it, 1 year for planning, and 1 year for business analysis and you have a 5 year plan. This is commonly seen across the board, with all of their products. Which is why at times MS seems behind the curve, the problem MS faces though is exactly what this article points out. Ever move MS does has to protect their enterprise, fend off competition, keep office and their other key software lines in tack and profitable. So MS knew well ahead of the time what would or would not be supported.

      3.) See my #1, they have had mobile native, they just have had it on their phone system, same as apple. I don’t see apples native app offering on android or windows phone, so same scenario.

      Another bigger piece to keep an eye on is the entire Microsoft stack is moving to any device, any service, any hardware, we have you covered mentality. Your smartphone, with the soon native office apps, and smart glass will run full screen on your TV at home. you can insta synch files between your phone, desktop, tablet, with no problems. Regardless of your hardware. Add on kinetic support and you get human touch interaction on your 70 inch tv to your devices. A few friends and I have built out a metro app that lets you post in facebook, then hand drag and drop that post into twitter, or visa versa. You can even use a voice to text option to talk your messages. We are now working on emailing people with drag and drop options with speech. It’s nice being able to say, xbox: new facebook post: Today our app made a new milestone, still some testing needed, but progressing. xbox post message. and having it show up in our facebook feed. If the text gets screwed up, I can reach down to my surface and quickly fix it.

      Is what we doing anything you can’t do already? no with voice to text messaging, and facebook posting etc you can do most to all of it today. Can I do it while split screen watching the game stream, on my big screen. not really. As people have more time and access to pull in all the different pieces of the well laid out hardware integration we will see amazing things that other vendors will have a hard time matching. As they don’t have penetration into the household. They lack access to the TV’s in the house, which can become key, they lack human interaction via motion / body jestures. MS has all of this in the xbox, and most of the world has one.

    • halberenson says:

      They’ve had versions of Office for Microsoft’s own mobile devices since 1996 and back when Symbian was still the big (if already fading) dog they did a deal with Nokia to bring it their Smartphones (including MeeGo-based phones). So I don’t believe it is a problem of ignoring mobile. There was a corporate angst around doing anything cross-platform that had changed only slightly when I left in 2010 from what it had been when you left. A couple of years earlier I’d joined DevDiv to do a broad cross-platform mobile development story, but the effort was squashed before I even got started. So it really is only within the last two years that Steve opened the floodgates on people doing sensible (for some definition of sensible) cross-platform work.

      Sure once they revealed WoA to the world the speculation started. But inside, at least as of late 2010 (when Office 15 planning was wrapping up), they were keeping the WoA work under very tight wraps. I really think that at the time of Office 15 planning the Office team might not have known much about the strategy. I’m not even sure WIndows had made a decision

      It would probably shock you (as it shocks me) to realize how tight the information control barrier has become around Windows. Even CVPs (including what were once SVPs) and Technical Fellows outside the Windows project are on a strict need to know basis, and the Windows team is picky about your need to know. I’ve heard that most execs couldn’t even get builds of Windows 8 outside the ones that were made public. A far cry from the day when anyone in the product groups crazy enough could pick up and run the latest IDW. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Office didn’t start Windows 8 work until the Developer Preview. So I think it is entirely plausible that Sinofsky et al kept Office in the dark as to if they were going to allow third-party desktop apps or not on Windows RT.

      I agree that they could have had the team in India that does the mobile work fire up an effort to do Metro apps. I’ll speculate that with Windows 8, including Windows RT, getting the full Office suite they didn’t originally see the point. And by the time they did it was too late. Again I’ll go back to the environment in 2010. The position being communicated outside the Windows project was “we are going to do something about tablets in Windows 8” not “we’ve got a plan to change the tablet game and we need your help to do it”. I honestly believe that most of the leadership, including Partners and CVPs, didn’t fully get the plan until around Build 2011. For example, a Partner-level marketing executive (with excellent contacts throughout the product groups) told me in mid-2011 that they didn’t think Sinofsky was serious about tablets.

      It just isn’t like the old days where Bill would get everyone to rally around a strategy. Or at least it wasn’t for the second half of the 2000s. It does appear that Steve is now driving more strategic coordination amongst groups, but that is something that began when he got back from giving the “we’re all in” cloud speech. Maybe he realized that without more central influence you couldn’t be “all in” anything.

      • jhludwig says:

        Thanks Hal, that sheds very helpful and edifying light onto the current culture inside MSFT, which i am clearly out of touch with. So based on that, I withdraw some of my criticism of the Office team, particularly wrt Office on Windows RT — you can’t bet on something if you don’t know anything about it. I will redirect that criticism to Windows management and Microsoft management — if you are going to ship a device whose hallmark feature is Office, then you better darn well make sure you have created the environment for it to have a great version of Office.

        I will still blame the Office group in part tho — they may have had no insight into Windows RT, but they certainly knew that touch devices (Win8 on Intel, iPad) were going to be important in the future, and that running “classic Office” with its mouse/kb interface on these devices was going to be a bad experience.

  2. Bob - former DECie says:

    IRM/DLP = ???/Data Leak Protection?

  3. Pingback: A Little Ludwig Goes A Long Way » Hal Berenson defends Office on Windows RT

  4. decisionz says:

    Thanks for that. A rational analysis of MS business that makes sense. Wouldn’t it be grand if the average Internet debater had a better model of the world, like this. Would reduce the need to cut through so much bit dribble!!

  5. Chris Nelson says:

    As a very long time user, DBA and developer, the release of Windows 8 and RT is a source of confusion in the business and developer world. I don’t blame the Office team when their task is to squeeze the suite down to meet the needs of mobile and casual users.

  6. Carl says:

    I have to disagree with the overall sentiment of Office protecting Office. When as a company or organization within a company you switch from being innovative to being defensive, you lose out long term. There are several companies no longer in existence just because they were unable or unwilling to take a risk, they felt the best bet was to protect their existing, and ultimately shrinking market.

    To paraphrase from a biography I recently read: “If you as an organization are unwilling to take a risk on innovation because you might cannibalize another product in your company, be prepared because your competitors have no such concerns.”


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