Business

Tear down those Office walls, Microsoft

My first reaction to Microsoft’s Thursday announcement that it will release a new version of its Office suite for the Mac in 2010 can be summed up in one word: Why? The very notion of a software suite like Office seems completely out-of-date.

Of course, I know perfectly well the reason Microsoft wants to keep pumping out new versions of Office across all the platforms it serves: The suite accounts for about 30 percent of Microsoft’s overall revenue. But as a buyer, I just don’t get it.

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The not so suite spot

Office puts a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, e-mail app, and calendar in one box. I could buy some of those components (Word, Excel, et al.) separately, but it would make no sense. Amazon currently sells the standard edition of Office 2008 for $203. It sells Word 2008 alone for $213. (True, Apple does the all-or-nothing bundling thing with iWork. But it only charges $80 for its suite.)

So if I’m buying one Office app, I’m buying them all. And while you might have plausibly claimed that Office’s individual components were the best in their respective categories a decade ago, that’s not the case today.

For one thing, Microsoft’s products are aging badly. Software economics require the company to add new features to each release, regardless of what buyers want. Don’t want that formatting Ribbon at the top of all your document windows? Tough luck, it’s there and you can’t get rid of it. (I've never used it, I never will, yet there it stays.) To me, Office’s apps are clunkier than ever.

And the proprietary Office file formats are looking sillier all the time. It used to be that everyone I worked with used Word, and we exchanged everything in .doc format. When I started at Macworld five years ago, our editorial workflow had me submit stories to copy edit as .doc files, too.

But these days, we submit our stories in markdown format. That markup language lets us easily flow text into HTML for our Web site or InDesign for print. I suppose I could use Word to edit markdown text, but why would I, when I have a nice, eminently configurable tool like BBEdit? The only time I use Word now is when an author sends me a .doc file (or, worse, .docx). And when that happens, my first move is to open the file, select and copy all text, then paste it into BBEdit.

Same with calendaring: We do a lot of our group scheduling in Google Calendar these days. The Macworld editorial staff is scattered from California to New England. An online tool like Google Calendar lets everyone access the same schedules with a minimum of hassles. And it integrates easily with iCal, which makes syncing to multiple Macs and iPhones workable. From what I’ve seen, that kind of integration isn’t so easy with the current Entourage.

I still use Excel, because I know how to use it and it does what I want better than the alternatives. But I never use PowerPoint—never.

Break up Office

My point is that the suite as impregnable castle needs to give way to the suite as village. Rather than committing to one monolithic suite, I want a choice of smaller, interoperable tools. I’d even buy those tools from Microsoft, if I felt they were the best choices.

Make Word a versatile, thoroughly customizable text editor, completely compliant with other standard file formats. Make Outlook a really good, stand-alone, eminently Mac-like mail client that works with Exchange but also Gmail. (Turning it into a Cocoa app is a good first step.) Let me skip PowerPoint if I don’t want it. A nice cross-platform messaging client that works with all major IM platforms (think Adium) and Twitter would be nice.

And if you're going to convince me to buy the suite as a whole, you're going to have to do something about the price. There are too many affordable (or free) alternatives for me to rationalize spending $100 or more, particularly when I'm getting tools I don't need. Microsoft can afford to make Office and its components more competitive on price.

With Office 2010, Microsoft has a chance to remake the Mac office suite. I don’t expect it to take that chance. But if it doesn’t, Office will remain a hulking, vestigial creature, surrounded and soon to be undone by more agile, better adapted competitors.

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