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Microsoft is caught in a reality-distortion field

I missed that Frank Shaw, Corporate Vice President of Communications at Microsoft, claimed that Apple’s announcements in San Francisco last week obviously generated a ‘reality-distortion field’. The central thesis in this post on the official Microsft blog is that the Surface tablet is a better option for people trying to do work on a tablet than iPad. And here’s his argument, saying that people want a machine to get work done on:

Frank Shaw, Apples and oranges – The Official Microsoft Blog

That’s what Surface is. A single, simple, affordable device that helps you both lean in and kick back. Let’s be clear – helping folks kill time on a tablet is relatively easy. Give them books, music, videos and games, and they’ll figure out the rest. Pretty much all tablets do that.

But helping people be productive on a tablet is a little trickier. It takes an understanding of how people actually work, how they get things done, and how to best support the way they do things already.

The good news is that Microsoft understands how people work better than anyone else on the planet. We created the personal computing revolution by giving people around the world a low-cost, powerful, easy-to-use device that helped them accomplish an unbelievable array of tasks. And together, Windows and Office ended up reaching every corner of the globe and powering every academic institution, industry and profession. Of course both Windows and Office are evolving all the time – to reflect the way people work today – more social, more mobile and connected through the cloud.

We literally wrote the book on getting things done. And that’s how we knew that Surface needed to include three things to help people do their best work:

1. The gold standard in productivity software – Office.
2. Faster and more precise input methods like keyboard/trackpad.
3. The ability to use apps and documents side by side, allowing the comparisons, analysis and synthesis that happens frequently during content creation.

That’s what we delivered. And it’s why the Surface is the most productive tablet you can buy today. We also knew that it would make our competitors take notice.

Of course this is a reaction to Apple’s move last week to give iWork away free to those buying new hardware, or free upgrades to those with existing licenses (see What Apple’s zero pricing of iOS, Mac OS X, and iWork means). And, of course, a lot of the motivation here is just steam coming out of his ears. We expect the usual Microsoft overreaction/underreaction combination, like Ballmer’s response to the iPhone’s unveiling where he predicted that it wouldn’t be a success because it was too expensive and lacked a physical keyboard.

On the other hand, reading a bit deeper here, there is a restatement — and perhaps a hardening — of Microsoft’s strategy to limit availability of Microsoft Office. As he says, Office is available on Surface but not on iPad. The other claims — input methods, side-by-side multitasking — are window dressing.

I will turn this posturing around: when the CEO of Microsoft — either the successor to Ballmer, or the one after that — stands on a stage, in the not-too-distant future, and announces that Microsoft Office is available on iOS and Android devices, that will be the day that Microsoft will have come to its senses. But it could come too late.

Remember that Microsoft wrote off $900 million in the first half of the year on the dismal launch of Surface. Reactions to last week’s Surface 2 launch have converged on the perception that its better that Surface, but still not competitive with iPad.

One thought about this battle that I haven’t explicitly made before: People don’t want Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, per se. In fact, those apps are generally considered bloatware, with confusing, UX-challenged, and overwrought design. What people want is something that doesn’t exist, but which Google and Apple are moving toward. People want to be able to view, edit, and create documents that are largely compatible with the de facto core standard of Office documents, the basic 20% of the three apps. And they want those documents to be sharable with other people, no matter what solutions those other people are using.

The big shift here is that in this era, the hegemony of Office is not going to dictate hardware decisions. People won’t put up with the limitations of Windows-based tablets from Microsoft or Nokia because they are the only place to get full-fidelity Office. And the simple reason is that people don’t want full-fidelity office, really.

Our work communications have moved outside of the interior of documents. The pattern of reviewing a Word document with internal comments and tracking changes is being displaced by external comments — in a work media tool (Yammer, Chatter, etc.) or in a social editing tool like Quip (see I want a social editor, but Quip isn’t there quite yet) or Draft (see Draft is a small and simple co-editor). In the heyday of Office, email with attachments was state of the art. Microsoft has acquired Yammer and moved Office to the cloud with Office 365, but they haven’t seen the change that is going on the perimeter of their model of office work.

So Frank Shaw is saying that Microsoft — at least under this CEO — is still fighting the last war for office productivity, while the world has moved on to a new form factor for work, where the social interactions of people cooperating are not concealed inside documents, but are instead mediated outside of them. And, as a result, the documents themselves can be much simpler in their internal architecture. We are relying on social architecture, now, instead.

And of course that is only one of the many complexities built into Office documents that might be better pulled out as well, for the sake of a better, simpler, and social user experience. Yes we will still want to write reports, and create spreadsheets, and share slideshows, but documents are floating around today in a social stream, and that changes what their role and structure will be.