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Perspective: Microsoft hedges on Office for iPad, cites 'thoughtful' decisions

Gregg Keizer | Feb. 17, 2014
Company's top marketing exec talks up Office's power to make Windows special

To be clear, Reller — a last-minute substitute for new CEO Sayta Nadella, who before his promotion had been slated to appear at Thursday's Goldman Sachs event — did not say that Office would not follow the trajectory outlined by Ballmer in 2013. But neither did she parrot Ballmer, who had led every outside observer, customers included, to believe that the decision had been made to eventually cut Office's tie to Windows on mobile. That would have been Reller's easiest answer to the questions.

Instead, her comments, dissected because Microsoft has declined to go public with a roadmap of its plans for touch-first Office on Windows, much less on iOS and Android, moved the decision to the "undecided" column.

Industry analysts have called on Microsoft to detach Office from Windows in mobile — the suite has long been available for the most popular desktop alternative, Apple's OS X — and recently repeated their arguments after Nadella's Feb. 4 promotion to CEO.

Their renewed calls had been encouraged, some said, by Nadella's promise to make Microsoft's strategy "cloud-first, mobile-first," phrases that Reller used herself Thursday. If mobile was a company-wide priority, then that meant Office should be spread across mobile platforms, not available only on Windows, they reasoned.

The outside consensus has been that Microsoft has declined to sell Office on Android and iOS because the company sees the suite as a major selling point for Windows overall, Windows 8-powered tablets in particular. It's no coincidence that a lot of Windows device advertising and marketing, including that for Microsoft's own Surface line, emphasizes Office.

Wanting to retain that advantage, the Windows and in-house hardware teams blocked Office from appearing on other platforms, the theory went. Although the group responsible for Office likely lobbied for a release sooner rather than later, claiming it can book impressive revenue, its arguments have been shot down.

Many now view that strategy as a flop.

"It's a strategy that has simultaneously failed to drive adoption of these [Windows] devices and put at risk Office's dominance in the business productivity market," research firm IDC contended in a note to clients last week. "The company is not only leaving a great deal of money on the table, but it's also forcing tablet users to find alternatives to Office."

Ben Thompson, an independent analyst who covers technology on his Stratechery website, has called it a "strategy tax," in other words, a decision that while harmful to a specific product, somehow furthers larger goals of the company as a whole.

During her answers to other questions in the half-hour, Reller stuck to the lines drawn earlier by her former boss Ballmer, and her new one, Nadella. For example, she used the phrases Ballmer had promoted, including "devices and services" and "family of devices" to describe Microsoft's ongoing, overarching strategy and its willingness to create a broader array of in-house hardware. "We want to have that family of devices.... Where there are interesting device categories, we want to play," Reller said.


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