Rumour has it that the next release of Microsoft's Office suite, Office 2012, will make its first public beta appearance in late January. A radical interface redesign is on the cards, but what else does Microsoft need to do to remain dominant in the office suits space?
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Most of the rumours so far surrounding Office 2012 (or Office 15 if you're counting version numbers) have concerned the work on developing a Metro-style interface, mimicking the look of Windows 8. One of the chief reasons for using the Metro interface is to make Office more functional in touch environments, such as tablets and touch-screen PCs.
The reaction to that change so far in the early developer builds of Windows 8 has been pretty positive. However, it's worth remembering that one of Microsoft's most consistent positions around Metro is that it isn't designed to totally replace the existing interface. Rather, users should have a choice based on the kind of tasks they want to perform. This is particularly relevant when it comes to productivity apps. If you're in consumption mode -- reading email or reviewing a presentation -- then touch can make life easier. But once you get into production mode -- typing data into a spreadsheet or writing a novel -- then there's still no real substitute for a keyboard and a mouse.
That distinction has been reflected in the leaked screenshots of early Office builds that have popped up on various blogs. While the interface for Office looks flatter, for instance, the Ribbon hasn't disappeared. Since it first appeared in Office 2007, the Ribbon has been controversial, and there are still plenty of people running earlier versions of Office where it doesn't appear. But the spread of the Ribbon into standard Windows apps like Paint proves that it's not disappearing, and the fact that it still seems to be part of the Office look confirms that trend.
One of the ongoing challenges for Microsoft with Office is convincing businesses to upgrade from older versions. If you're not creating complex documents, then virtually any version from 95 on can do what you need. (It's also worth pointing out that even Office 95 can also do a lot more than most online document editors, but that's another story.)
Office is a huge cash cow for Microsoft, but that hasn't stopped it tweaking its pricing approach. As we noted on the weekend, the Starter edition of Office is available for downloading, meaning almost anyone can get basic features of Office for free. The same is also true of the browser-based Office Web apps versions, though those too are cut down versions.
In a recent analysis of the market, research firm Gartner suggests that the biggest advantage Microsoft enjoys isn't the interface of Office, but the near-universal use of its file formats. "Compatibility continues to trump price, and if Microsoft navigates upcoming market changes well, it will continue to dominate the market throughout the decade," analysts Michael Silver and Tom Austin wrote. Google will provide the most obvious competition, but even by 2015 Gartner says its share of the total office productivity market will be "slim". Again, compatibility is the key issue:
Although Google Docs adds new features every two weeks or so, its compatibility with Microsoft Office is insufficient for moderately complex documents or those that need to be shared for editing with users running Microsoft Office.
Silver and Austin also point out that while there was a widespread expectation that browser-based products would provide major competition to desktop apps, attention is now shifting to implementation on mobile devices. Ultimately, HTML5 might provide a means of delivering those options in all three environments, but that clearly isn't going to happen in a hurry.
What changes would you like to see in the next version of Office? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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