Is Microsoft Office Obsolete or Not?

By | Feb 23, 2012

Does the spread of tablet devices point to the obsolescence of Microsoft Office? Some recent commentary is making this argument. The suggestion is that mobile devices are changing not just where we work but how we work. Physical documents are no longer the implicit template for our written communications, which means that the MS Office suite is a virtual representation of models that no longer matter.

The implications go well beyond the future of Microsoft's productivity suite. A world beyond Office will be a world in which business communication no longer replicates the traditional document model. And such a change will require IT managers to rethink the way they store written information, classify it, and make it available to a variety of users.

"The Post-Office Generation"

At TechCrunch, that is how John Biggs headlines his reporting on and expansion of this discussion. He also links it back to a post on Patrick Rhone's blog MinimalMac.

The core of this argument is simple, if necessarily subjective: The spread of tablet devices is eroding the implicit assumption in the workplace and IT department that Microsoft Office is needed to do any serious work. So long as most work was done on a desktop, in a Microsoft-centric environment, alternatives such as Open Office were regarded as "just weird." Thus, they did not gain acceptance even though they were available.

But workers with tablet devices operate in a different ecosystem, in which Office documents are easy to open, and work can be done in a simple notepad, with documents moved via email or services such as Dropbox.

These changes have an effect that goes beyond technology. Workflow is less and less like the pre-computer model of the paper-based office. Yet, this is precisely the model that is virtualized by MS Office. Word presents itself as a magic typewriter. Excel replicates a traditional ledger. As a generation of workers comes up without these traditional references, they have no need for software that virtualizes them.

A Few Complications

From some perspectives, the Mac-centric origins of this discussion may raise an eyebrow. Certainly from Redmond's perspective, this will be the case. Microsoft may have been slow to adopt to the mobile era. But favorable reviews for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 7 suggest that it is catching up and will provide options for the mobile age.

More to the point, there is nothing new about using an email text box instead of a Word document for simple written notes. For that matter, chances are that a great majority of Word users don't use or even know most of its fancier features. And tablet devices themselves are really only suited to fairly simple tasks.

For IT managers, the mobility era will cause plenty of headaches. It is already causing them, as devices that users regard as very personal come into the IT workflow. But the general pattern continues to be that, among a welter of possible software options, only a few catch on and become widespread.

These are the options that IT will support, and require work users to choose among. This will surely continue to be the case--whether or not Microsoft Office remains one of those widespread options.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet.