Will Office Productivity Suites Suck Forever?

A couple of months ago we talked about iWork for iCloud looking awesome at WWDC--but now things are getting weird. When Apple opened the beta to everyone, “overwhelming response” forced them to lock it down again. And the lack of collaborative editing features is a pretty obvious Achilles’ heel. Why can’t Apple’s brand new cloud office suite compete?

The ability to compose thoughts and numbers in cloud documents today has become a must-have business need. We’ve come a long way from the days of dedicated, single-use word processing machines in the 1970s in terms of backend technology, but not that far in terms of interface. The Microsoft Office suite has dominated home and office computers for years, which has been great for compatibility and ease of use. Other than the transition to .docx and the occasional Apple devotee sharing a laughable .pages file, things have improved painfully slowly. Apple’s WWDC iCloud demo looked like the most promising change in years.

But in a software category with minimal competition, minimal innovation seems to be the rule. Sure, Microsoft has done cosmetic updates on its Office suite over the years and has added new features when convenient, but in almost 40 years there hasn’t been a fundamental reinterpretation of what word processing is or what productivity suites should provide. It seemed like cloud-based suites would be the kick in the pants the industry needed, though. Microsoft is now competing with Google Drive, which is robust and highly usable, as well as Apple’s iWork, which has the potential to home in on anyone invested in the Apple ecosystem. And smaller developers like the makers of Quip have even stepped up to compete. It seems like a much better environment for transformation. But so far things haven’t been going great.

In a meditation about word processing on Medium, Dragon Z. noted:

Most of the contemporary word processors are bloated with features that distract attention, and clearly derive from the tradition of the printed page. But as we are moving on to the era when writing, editing, and finally, publishing happens online, it is time we changed our methods of writing itself --it is time for the digital first composition. On the level of the interface it means a simplification of the writing tool; on the level of the logic of working mechanism it means a new paradigm.

Every time something like iWork for iCloud looks promising it turns out to have numerous drawbacks and weaknesses. Of course nothing is perfect on the first try, but that is exactly what is so frustrating about the current state of productivity suites: This is in no way the first try. And it’s clear that the market is yearning for a radical departure. It seems like Quip was overhyped simply because people are so ready to see something novel that they’re reading greatness into anything that comes out. And iWork looks like another example.

When Apple opened the iWork beta to anyone with an Apple ID, they clearly weren’t expecting the deluge of users they received. Which was dumb, because early adoption during beta testing is clearly becoming a trend among average users. And furthermore everyone is so desperate for new productivity options that they’ll try just about anything to see if it can meet their needs across multiple devices and with a group of collaborators. As it stands now, iWork doesn’t seem ready to fill the void (even if and when Apple pulls it together to offer full user support). It will be interesting to watch Microsoft, Apple, and Google continue to jostle for control in this space, but it will be even more interesting to see if new developers can come out of nowhere and carry the day.

Previous Updates

The World Needs A Better Word Processor, But Quip Ain't It

August 16, 2013

There are tons of word processing apps out there. Maybe too many: 69 pop up if you search “word processor” in the App Store, and 240 show up in Google Play (admittedly, some aren’t particularly relevant). But Quip, founded by former Facebook CTO Bret Taylor and Google App Engine creator Kevin Gibbs, is getting a lot of attention as something radical and totally new. Which it isn’t. So what’s the deal?

Quip’s built-in chat is its most innovative and universally liked feature. The chat lives in a sidebar that shows edits and comments so you can work on and talk about a document in real-time with other people. Lots of productivity suites for web, like Google Drive, integrate chat, but there aren’t many phone or tablet apps that do it. It’s a nice feature, especially if you and your collaborators are working together on a deadline.

Other than chat, however, Quip is a pretty standard mobile word processor, with all the usual limitations. It’s intentionally minimalist, maybe to a fault: You can’t change the size or color of the words within pre-set styles for headings and body text. There’s no word count, you can’t run a grammar check or align text. In fact, there’s very little paragraph formatting available at all.

You might think that that’s the whole point. We don’t need to pretend we’re still writing on and formatting for 8.5 x 11 pieces of paper. It’s a brave new world! But adding colors and changing formatting has more to do with idea organization and visual continuity than it does sticking to thousand year-old conventions. I still want these features, even if the document is only ever going to be viewed on a mobile device.

Quip’s other supposedly revolutionary feature is the way it tracks changes. It’s true that most word processors, like Microsoft Word, feature cumbersome, only minimally useful change tracking, so new approaches should be welcome. But Quip’s implementation is a tough sell, especially for intense work. The app adds “slips of paper” to its sidebar for every change. Each slip includes the time when a change was made, whether it was made on mobile or web, what was added, and what was deleted. Over time, the sidebar begins to accumulate a comprehensive timeline of everything that has ever happened in the document. But as the slips add up, the app starts visualizing them as teetering piles of paper. If you make a lot of minor changes (like we do pretty much every time we open a document), Quip starts to feel overwhelming.

Quip isn’t a terrible option, but it’s certainly incomplete, and perhaps misbranded as a word processor. If you think about it as a collaborative Evernote alternative, its use case begins to make more sense, but there are many better pure word processing apps out there, and more interesting note-taking apps as well. Given the competition, why has Quip accumulated so many awe-inspiring headlines, like “Quip Is Bringing The Word-Processing Era To Its End,” “Quip: A Beautiful, Contrarian Word Processor,” and “Quip Brings The Word Processor Out Of The Dark Ages”?

I think it’s because people are desperate for a new era of word processing so they can’t help themselves from proclaiming it in their reviews of Quip, even if it’s premature. The fact that Quip raised $15 million in initial venture funding shows that it’s not just tech writers. Investors, too, know that users are hungry for a new solution, and that any new word-processing-related idea will seem like a godsend to the masses compared to the options available today.

Quip may push out updates that make it more usable and reliable, but even if it isn’t an immediate threat, Microsoft 365, iWork, and Google Drive should all beware. Quip’s undeserved hype is a sign that the big three have so far failed to produce quality solutions for mobile word processing, or in the case of Microsoft even release mobile apps in a timely way. The Pages app is popular, as is the Google Drive app, but only because they’re serviceable in comparison to lousy alternatives. Word processing on mobile needs to completely break free of analogies to paper, push the limits of in-app collaboration, and find a way to provide powerful and limitless formatting while still keeping everything minimal. Quip is not that app, but someday, something will be. Big tech companies should be scared.

iWork for iCloud Puts Google To Shame

July 8, 2013

I’ve always been prejudiced against Apple’s iWork suite. I think it stems from a time in the mid 2000s when iWork applications, especially Numbers, were behind the Microsoft Office curve. But when Apple announced iWork for iCloud at WWDC last month I realized that my assessment of the suite was outdated. iWork was lookin’ fly. And now developers with early access are raving about the iCloud version. When it comes to inhabitants of the Apple ecosystem it seems like Microsoft and Google are going to have real competition.

It’s true that Excel still edges Numbers out for most professional users, but in terms of overall features and integration of a web-based suite, iWork (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) seems rock solid. And while Microsoft Office 365 has only taken limited first steps to specifically engage Apple users, especially on mobile devices, iWork is poised to grab market-share. When iWork for iCloud is publicly released in October, it makes sense that the cross-platform compatibility will lure Apple users to go all in on iWork, whether they had previously adopted the local applications or not.

An important factor in all of this is price. Currently Pages, Numbers, and Keynote are $20 each in the Mac App Store, and the iOS versions are $10 each. That puts the whole package at $90 if you want all three apps on your computer plus mobile. Microsoft 365 is $100/year or $10/month for access to local and mobile applications. But like Google Drive, it seems that iWork for iCloud is going to be free.

The Internet rabble is saying that it would be inconsistent of Apple to offer iWork for iCloud for free while continuing to charge for the local and mobile applications. And many people are predicting that Apple will make iWork free on all of its devices. They argue that such a strategy would be in line with the precedent set by the iLife suite and mobile apps like iMessage, and could be a talking point that helps Apple sell even more hardware.

But I don’t see the conflict, and to me it doesn’t even seem necessary for Apple to make iWork free. If they want to do it, great, and it would probably be a solid strategy for luring users away from Microsoft and Google, but I don’t see it as make or break. With the iCloud rollout, iWork will be offering a Google Drive competitor. And it will also be rivaling Office 365, still for $10 less, with significantly better integration and mobile capability than Microsoft will be able to offer for at least a year. For those in the Apple ecosystem, iWork will draw users and be an attractive option whether or not all versions become free. It also seems possible, though there hasn’t been mention of this as far as I know, that local and mobile iWork applications could move to a subscription model like Office 365.

The group I see thinking most seriously about switching to iWork will be Mac owners who have and use old versions of the Microsoft Office Suite right now, but have been confused or deterred by Microsoft’s move to Office 365. I would think that these users would be most tempted by iWork, because it will offer everything, free web apps like Google Drive, local applications like the traditional Microsoft Office Suite, plus iOS apps with more extensive functionality than what Microsoft is offering. By the time Office 365 catches up in mobile, iOS customers may be gone, and likewise Google Drive may lose out because it has limited local options for people who don’t have consistent Internet access. Google and Microsoft need to make moves if they want to keep iWork for iCloud from eroding their respective user bases, and they need to do it soon.

Adobe Isn't Losing Any Sleep Over Creative Cloud Piracy

June 28, 2013

A day after Creative Cloud came out it was cracked and posted on The Pirate’s Bay. We all expected it to happen eventually, but a one day turnaround is pretty legit. It might mean that hackers have become unstoppable. That it doesn't even take effort anymore for them to work around an authentication/limited sharing system. But this seems unlikely. Why would hacking so greatly outpace legitimate development? Perhaps the answer is much simpler: Adobe security just wasn't trying very hard.

A desire to reduce piracy may not have been the only motivator in the decision to move to Creative Cloud, but it was certainly understood to be a factor. Photoshop alone is one of the most pirated pieces of software ever. Yet when Mark Wilson interviewed Adobe’s director of product marketing, Heidi Voltmer, after the Creative Cloud announcement she said,

Reducing piracy really isn’t one of the key things we looked at with the Cloud. The reality is people learn how to hack around copy protection and pirate if they really want to. There’s no way to avoid piracy.

And Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen told Mashable around the same time that, “It allows us to provide different offerings in different emerging markets without worrying about gray markets.”

The idea seems to be that if Creative Cloud’s price per month is cheap enough, it will entice most average users to simply pay for full privileges, rather than making a foray into the unreliable and frustrating world of disable activation scripts or serial generators. Even if Creative Cloud only acts as a minor deterrent to pirates it may be enough of a gain to satisfy Adobe for now. And there seems to be the beginning of a more general shift toward thinking about piracy as a demand indicator and sign of consumer enthusiasm rather than a death knell. It’s been years since there was any question that piracy was here to stay, but many industries that would benefit from a new point of view haven’t been able to reframe piracy in a productive way. If Adobe is using Creative Cloud to let go of old battles and test the waters they might actually be pushing cloud suites forward.

Why We’re Tracking Productivity Apps On The Web

More and more developers are taking their work suites and services into the cloud. They’re providing ways for users to work anywhere, from any machine and maybe collaborate more efficiently. Maybe. This model allows software makers to deliver incremental updates more easily and reduce illicit installer distribution. But most users are accustomed to working with what is available locally on their computers and sharing work by transferring documents via email, a local server, or even a thumb drive. How can they break free of those habits, and what do developers need to deliver for people to work better and faster in the cloud?

Microsoft Office For iOS Looks Like...Bait-And-Switch

June 20, 2013

Microsoft Office isn’t the best suite for everything, but after dominating word processing, spreadsheets, and slide sets for 20 years, it certainly has brand cachet. And when Microsoft introduced the cloud-based Office 365 in October 2010, it was supposed to represent a logical next step in the suite’s evolution. Progress. But in the ensuing 2 and a half years, Office mobile apps have been glaringly missing from the iOS and Android ecosystems. Microsoft seems to have been intentionally keeping them exclusive to Windows Phone and the Surface tablets.

Without deep mobile integration, though, the SkyDrive aspect of Office 365 seems pretty wasted. Cloud syncing doesn’t hurt, but it’s not regularly useful if a user isn’t on multiple devices. And the newly released iOS app has the same functionality as the Windows Phone version. It’s good for minor rewording or typo fixes, but it’s not the place to conjure a document or slide set from scratch. Basically the app iOS users have been waiting for isn’t even that dynamic, and it’s the same build that’s supposed to be drawing users to Windows mobile. The strategy is limited no matter which way you look at it.

Rick Sherlund, an analyst at Nomura Equity Research, noted that Microsoft is probably keeping Office mobile apps from other platforms, specifically the iPad and Android, in an attempt to make Windows mobile devices like the Surface more appealing.

Launching Office Mobile on the iPad could present additional competitive pressure for Windows 8 and Surface. Microsoft may be dragging its feet on Office for the iPad and Android for competitive reasons intended to give Windows 8 and Surface a chance to gain traction. Our view is that this delay is enabling competition for Office to entrench itself on these platforms and Office is a bigger business for Microsoft than Windows, so we see more urgency to preserve and extend the Office franchise cross platform.

With the launch of a more unified iWorks at WWDC last week and Google’s continued improvement to the Drive app, it seems more dangerous than ever for Microsoft to withhold Office from Android and iOS users. People who would normally turn to Office out of habit will seek platform-available alternatives out of necessity and may never come back.

[Image: Flickr user Nathan Oakley]