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Microsoft Office at 30: It’s popular because it’s boring

Commentary: Microsoft has fended off challenges to its Office dominance for decades, but not through cutting-edge innovation.


Image: Microsoft

Thirty years later, we’re still dependent on Microsoft Office. Microsoft Office was first released in 1990, and while it hasn’t sat still, some of the “innovations” created to spur continued purchases aren’t for everyone. For example, Richard Brodie, one of the creators of Microsoft Word, is no fan of the ribbon interface: “I can never find anything in the damn ribbon. I liked the old menus. But I’m old.” 

So, too, is Microsoft Office. And yet, despite its age, it remains the world’s most popular business app, no matter the geography, according to 2021’s Business at Work report from Okta. Personally, I liked WordPerfect better. Others preferred open source options like OpenOffice, and more recently the world has flirted with Google Docs. Yet Microsoft Office remains. Why?

SEE: Microsoft 365: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Making files boring

Back in 2015, I called Office “Mesozoic” (not a compliment!). Five years earlier, in 2010, I slighted The Document Foundation for trying to “replicat[e] Microsoft’s tired Office legacy” since “the future belongs to the web.” That same year I ridiculed OpenOffice as “little more than a rerun of the best and worst of Microsoft Office.” 

Each time, the subtext of my posts was: “No one cares about Microsoft Office. Move on.”

Well, I was wrong. Lots of people care about Office–hundreds of millions of users, according to some estimates. And while I’m sure Microsoft would disagree with me, the primary reason for all this use isn’t innovative new functionality–it’s the opposite. It’s the reality that boring old docs will stay boring; that spreadsheets will handle the same old pivot tables; and that presentations will be predictable. No one really wants their office suite to be innovative. They just want it to work.

Which is why the open source alternatives never really made a dent in Microsoft’s Office empire. At the time, there was just enough concern about 100% compatibility that it simply wasn’t worth the risk. No one wants adventure when it comes to sharing docs. Ninety-nine percent compatibility wasn’t enough. Neither were attempts to come up with the Open Document Format to provide a neutral file format that everyone could use–Microsoft, LibreOffice, OpenOffice, etc. 

It didn’t work. 

I mean, the file formats worked, but customers didn’t really want their file formats to change. Again, innovation isn’t really what customers have wanted with office productivity suites. Stability, yes. “Just works,” yes. Cool new feature that breaks compatibility? Nope.

SEE: Software as a Service (SaaS): A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

There just might be a lesson in here for the other popular business apps in Okta’s rankings: Salesforce, Docusign, Box, Lucidchart, Slack, and more. Sometimes we market apps like gee-whiz innovation is what sells. If Microsoft Office is any indication, “tried-and-true” is the winning sales pitch. Yes, you first have to get customers interested in using the app in the first place, but after that it becomes a delicate balance of keeping things constant with just enough change to stay current with trends. But not too current.

Disclosure: I work for AWS, but the views expressed herein are mine

Also see

This post was written by and was first posted to TechRepublic

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