Straight Talking 59

by Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson explains why the changing landscape means that Office developers face difficult decisions.

HardCopy Issue: 59 | Published: February 1, 2013

According to its last set of financials, to the end of September 2012, Microsoft makes more money from Microsoft Office than from Windows client. Revenue from Office was $5.5 billion, versus $3.2 billion for Windows, while profit was $3.6 billion versus $1.6 billion. A bumper quarter for Windows following the launch of Windows 8 could change that, but the indications are otherwise.

While most of us care little about Microsoft’s earnings in themselves, it does illustrate the importance of Office.

It is now widely accepted that the Windows PC is in decline, although slowly and from a huge base, thanks to the influence of smartphones and tablets. That is not a bad thing: tablets and the app store deployment model simplify computing for users; and for those who do not need the heavyweight applications that run only on PCs or Macs, a tablet makes sense.

“Tablets have dramatically changed the device landscape for PCs, not so much by ‘cannibalizing’ PC sales, but by causing PC users to shift consumption to tablets rather than replacing older PCs. Whereas once we imagined a world in which individual users would have both a PC and a tablet as personal devices, we increasingly suspect that most individuals will shift consumption activity to a personal tablet, and perform creative and administrative tasks on a shared PC,” says Gartner analyst Mikako Kitagawa.

While this remark is mainly focused on consumers, there is a parallel trend in business, whether it is Bring Your Own Device – using a personal machine for work as well – or simply rolling out iPads to meet a business need.

What then will happen to Office? Microsoft Office of course continues to be excellent at what it does. I was reminded of this recently when analysing some data traffic statistics. I selected the table in Excel 2013, clicked Recommended Charts, and there was my data beautifully visualised. There is surprisingly little enthusiasm for alternatives like Open Office or Libre Office, despite significant cost savings.

The force for change is now different, based on the shift towards cloud and device, and it has obvious implications. Here are a few:

  • Traditional file shares no longer meet business needs. In a Microsoft world, SharePoint is the solution, whether implemented on-premise and published to the Internet, or through Office 365 or Skydrive, or hosted by a third-party. Non-Microsoft solutions include Dropbox, Google docs and Apple iCloud.
  • Users need to edit and create documents on tablets, which for most people means an iOS or Android device. Given that Microsoft Office is only available on non-Windows tablets in the form of Web apps, that is an opportunity for rival document editing apps.
  • The way businesses store and exchange information is changing. Attaching an office document to an email is still the most common way, but Web-based approaches like a link to a SharePoint, Slideshare or Google doc make more sense in a world of diverse devices.

Microsoft is not standing still: along with SharePoint itself, and the associated Office Web Apps which deliver limited Office viewing and editing in the browser, it has made changes both to the Office product and to its business model with the future in mind. Office 2013 is being offered to users by subscription as well as with traditional perpetual licenses. A subscription includes Office 365, Office applications, and additional rights depending on the package. Most intriguing is that Office 365 Home Premium covers use on ‘selected devices’, meaning not only PCs and Macs, but also Windows Phone 7.5 and higher, with ‘additional devices’ to be added in future.


OneNote Wheel screenshot

The OneNote Wheel: is this what a touch-friendly Office app looks like?

Might that include Apple iOS and Google Android? A company spokesperson said that “Office will work across Windows Phone, iOS and Android,” though exactly what this means is not clear at the time of writing, and other rumours say that Apple and Microsoft disagree on the subject of revenue sharing from Office 365 subscription fees.

Another new feature in Office 2013 is better support for touch control. This was hyped considerably by Microsoft at the preview launch, but the feature does little more than space out the icons on the ribbon so they’re easier to target with a finger. Combine that with pinch to zoom and it does make it easier to edit a document with touch control, but it falls short of the deep redesign Office needs to make it truly touch-friendly. Open a dialog, for example, and you are back to Office as it has looked for years, with no concessions for tablet users.

The exception is OneNote MX, which is a Windows Store app available alongside Outlook 2013 for Windows 8 users. This has an innovative user interface featuring a contextual wheel control in place of ribbons and icons. It is not perfect, and some features like audio recording are missing, but it shows that Microsoft is able to think radically about how to transform Office for mobile devices.

Windows 8 itself is also part of Microsoft’s Office strategy. The suffering that Microsoft is experiencing as its customers struggle with the Windows 8 ‘modern user interface’ is a measure of how determined the company is to have a presence in the tablet market. No doubt the intention is to make a Windows 8 tablet the obvious choice for businesses who would otherwise be enticed by iPads. It is not working yet, but Microsoft has its new tablet platform and it is too soon to write it off.

However the tablet wars plays out, some predictions look safe. One is that Office has to work well across diverse devices and with touch control, if it is to avoid declining towards irrelevance. It also follows that Office applications which depend on desktop Windows are at risk, since they will not work across all these clients. Even on Windows RT, trusty old Visual Basic for Applications was omitted from the versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint built for the ARM processor.


Apps for Office

The earliest Office apps were based on VBA and COM, where the code lives in the document or template. Next came Office development using .NET and Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO), where Office applications host the .NET runtime and applications communicate with Office documents using COM Interop.

In Office 2013, Microsoft has done its all too familiar trick of asking developers to forget the past and use a new and different approach. In mitigation, the old apps do continue to work – even VBA apps, although there can be issues converting 32-bit VBA to 64-bit.

The new model is called Apps for Office. These are essentially Web pages embedded either in the task pane, or in the document itself. The former are called Task Pane Apps and the latter Content Apps. Outlook supports a third type called a Mail App. This is similar to a Task Pane App in that it opens alongside an email, and again is based on an embedded browser.

Apps for Office are sandboxed and cannot use ActiveX controls. The key feature is a JavaScript API which lets the app interact with the current document. You can query document content, write to the document, and handle events such as DocumentSelectionChanged.

A user installs an App for Office simply by adding a reference to an XML manifest. Another advantage is that an App for Office works inherently in Office Web Apps as well as in the desktop client, and therefore works on iPads and Android tablets as well as on Windows PCs.

Unfortunately the scope of Apps for Office is limited in this first release. The only app types that currently work in the Web Apps are Excel Content Apps and Outlook Mail Apps. Task Pane Apps only work on the desktop. Nor are the apps uniformly supported throughout the Office suite. Content Apps only work in Excel.

There may be a few bleeding-edge businesses which upgrade all their users to the latest Office shortly after release, but others are more cautious. It is a big ask of developers that they should abandon existing skills in Office apps for the sake of a new type of app that only works with the latest version.

The App for Office concept actually works best in the context of SharePoint 2013 and Office 365 as a technology for Office Web Apps. It is therefore a shame that the Task Pane Apps do not yet work there, although Microsoft says they will at some future date.


Where next for Office?

Office will be big business for Microsoft for the foreseeable future. The productivity of Word and Excel, and the sheer usefulness of Outlook despite its poor user interface, will ensure that. But can Office avoid slow decline in the tablet era? Judging by what Microsoft currently has on offer, it will be hard to avoid, though growth in SharePoint and Office 365 will mitigate that, and the Office team will be hard at work improving its tablet story. As for Office development, the two paths that make sense are either to forget the new stuff and continue with old-style projects for clearly defined sets of users on Windows desktops, or to focus on SharePoint and Office Web App development where the client no longer matters.

As with Windows 8, there is a lot to like in Apps for Office, but it is late arriving and a hard sell for developers familiar with a different platform.