Is Microsoft Being an Office Jerk?

Microsoft Office
Paul Sakuma/AP

Everyone seems to have an opinion about what Microsoft needs to do in order to turn things around once Steve Ballmer has left the building.

IDC's Al Hilwa probably has one of the better vantage points. He's an industry analyst for a leading tech research company that's been chronicling the quarterly demise of the PC industry. He also used to work at Microsoft (MSFT) for several years before joining IDC in 2007.

Naturally, his piece earlier this week -- detailing the 10 things that Microsoft should change -- is going to turn heads. It's hard to argue against many of his points, but he does lead off with a polarizing suggestion that's been voiced by many critics of the tech bellwether in the past.
Hilwa suggests that Microsoft Office -- the software giant's second largest product -- needs to be made available on iOS and Android devices right away.

Office Space

"The Office franchise is exposed to erosion as non-Windows mobile devices take productivity work away from Windows PCs and mobile devices," Hilwa argues. "Supporting non-Windows tablets full bore will maximize Microsoft's paths of eventual success."

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He's right, in theory. Google's (GOOG) Android and Apple's (AAPL) iOS have a commanding lead of the mobile operating system market. Microsoft has thrown a lot of time and money at its homegrown platforms, and its measly 4 percent market share in tablets and smartphones may be as good as it gets.

The heartily echoed opinion is that Microsoft may as well make Word, Excel, PowerPoint and other Office components available to the growing ranks of non-Windows devices before it loses relevance.

This is true, but it may also underestimate what Microsoft stands to lose if Office becomes a platform-agnostic suite. After all, if you think PC sales have been slumping now after five straight quarters of sharp year-over-year declines in shipments, just imagine how Microsoft's bread-and-butter Windows operating system will suffer if you no longer need a PC to run the industry-leading word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation programs.

Any gains on the Office end will likely be more than offset by fewer Windows purchases.

It May Already Be Too Late

You can't fire up Office on your iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab, but that hasn't been a problem for both growing markets. Developers are crafty, and there are plenty of workarounds out there already. There's no shortage of Android and iOS apps that work somewhat seamlessly with Office files, offering a fair proxy of the basic functionality offered by Microsoft's suite of productivity software. Hilwa believes that Microsoft should crash its own party while it's still on top.

"It has to rethink its vision of the dominance of Windows in the mobile world and adjust to the reality that it will be at best one of several major players in future devices and will never have the control it did in the pre-touch era," he writes.

However, Microsoft doesn't have to jump into this seemingly inevitable decision right away.

Sales are actually still growing. Microsoft's business division that watches over Office grew 14 percent in its latest quarter and 3 percent for the entire fiscal year that ended in June. Critics have argued that Google Docs will eat Microsoft in the cloud, but Microsoft's Web-based Office 365 is now trending to be a $1.5 billion a year business.

Some will counter that it's too late.

Office may not be the difference maker that Microsoft thought it would be, and there's no stronger proof there than the $900 million that Microsoft wrote off this summer to mark down the value of its Surface tablets. The distinctive feature of Surface tablets -- especially the low-end model running Windows RT -- is that it can boot up Office. Surface RT tablets even rolled out late last year with its version of Office installed as a bonus. It didn't matter. Microsoft sold just 200,000 Surface RT devices during the first three months of 2013, and that figure likely fell again this past quarter.

Even a recent 30 percent price cut on Surface RT can't seem to drum up sales.

Ignorance in bliss. It may be best for Microsoft not to find out how little Office may matter to tablet and smartphone owners. The real goal here is to find a way to win consumers back to the desktops and laptops that they've been abandoning. Weaning them off PCs by offering Office in devices that may not wind up using may be a losing proposition on both ends.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Google. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google and Microsoft.