Almost every office worker of my generation spent years working with Microsoft software.
For a while Windows was, in effect, a monopoly. Any other operating system was, in number terms, a freak show.
While Windows was the star of the show, it gave Microsoft leverage elsewhere. The most obvious example was with Office. Almost everyone used it. Most people had no choice.
Even people who chose a Mac over a Windows PC were more likely to use Office than Apple’s iWork.
Windows, Office everywhere you look
In the media companies where I worked, Office was the only option for over a generation. Today editors, publishers and designers still expect to receive Word documents.
Send them something else and they think you’re weird.
Or they don’t understand. Some get angry. Others make a private promise never to commission work from such an infidel again. Not using Word was a poor career move. It can still be.
When I use a non-Microsoft writing tool, nine times out of ten I still send the finished document in a Word format.
This keeps everyone happy. It keeps me in work. This is no exaggeration.
It doesn’t matter that often a plain text file might be a better option for everyone concerned.
Edit, review in Word
This works in reverse. People send me Word documents. They may need reviewing or editing. This has to be done in Word. The application borders on compulsory.
Sure, some alternative products can handle reviewing and editing functions as well as Word. At least they can most of the time. However, in practice the process is not always smooth or straightforward.
Which means, like it or not, it makes economic sense to pay the $160 or so each year for an Office subscription. It’s a bargain even if the software sits idle on the hard drive.
There’s an instant return on that investment the first time a piece of work arrives that you can only fix in Office. This is something that might happen a handful of times a year. It always happens sooner or later.
Apart from anything else, dealing with incomptabiliti takes time. For many of us time is money.
A $165 Office subscription is cheaper than spending half a day dealing with file formats.
The end of the Office era?
Windows, Office and Word are all still dominant. It may not stay that way much longer.
Before we go any further. Let’s deal with LibreOffice. This is an open source alternative to Microsoft Office.
While LibreOffice has its charms, it is Office for people who don’t like giving money to Microsoft. The user experience is similar. So is the workflow.
Your productivity is unlikely to change if you switch from one to the other. That is not the case with moving from Office to Google Docs.
Many younger journalists and communications people prefer Google Docs. While I’m uneasy about privacy and security with Google, that’ not how other people see things.
I’ve worked for publications and editorial services where Docs is the tool of choice. Its collaboration features are great. Google Docs is easy to use.
It has flaws. Yet, flaws, privacy and security questions aside, Google Docs is better for journalists than Word.
That’s because it’s simple and pared back. Many of the heavy-duty features in Word are for lawyers or other specialist users. Most of us never fire up three-quarters of the program’s code.
The privacy and security questions about Google Docs are big ones. Especially in the light of recent revelations about how big technology companies snoop on customers.
Google can trawl through your Google Docs documents. It can collect data to help its customers target you with advertising. It can learn things about you. By now you should have figured out that with online services sometimes free can be too high a price.
Still, Google Docs does everything a journalist or communications professional might need.
Docs is good enough for most folk
In other words, Google Docs is at least a good enough alternative to Word. For many, if not all people, it is better.
There are reasons why it has yet to conquer Word. We’ve already looked at privacy and security. There’s also the question of inertia.
People might not love Word, but they are comfortable with it. The software took us a long time to master. A lot of people aren’t happy with discarding such an investment in time and effort. Of course this is an internal version of the sunk cost fallacy.
It’s easy to think about our personal productivity when we get to make our technology choices. Not everyone has that freedom. In large corporations Microsoft continues to hold a huge market share. Corporate IT departments tend to be comfortable with the devil they know.
And anyway, the security and privacy issues that worry individual users loom larger. Google Docs is often treated with suspicion by streetsmart IT professionals.
An external event could change the move from Word to Google Docs to switch from a trickle to a flood. One may be on the way.
Twenty years ago Windows accounted for about 19 in 20 personal computers. Today it is around four out of five and falling. Apple’s MacOS is now at about 12.5 percent of the market. Google’s Chrome OS is on the rise.
Computing is no longer restricted to personal computers. If we add tablets and phones to the mix, then Windows’ share has plummeted compared with its golden age in the 1990s. It may be around a third of the total today. Its share of new device sales is closer to 10 percent. So its influence is only going to drop.
Let’s not labour this point too much. After all phones are not great for writing tasks. The key here is that Windows no longer dominates. That, in turn, means the writing is on the wall for Office. It’s going to be less important in the future.
Windows and Office are under threat from two directions. In both cases the biggest threat is from Google.
At the low end, Google’s Chromebook hardware is winning hearts and minds in schools. For now this is more true in the USA than in places like New Zealand. It’s a real trend there.
Few young American students have ever seen Windows or Office. They use Chromebook, Android or iOS. In most cases they work with Google’s G-Suite, now the preferred name for Google Apps.
When those students graduate and start work they are going to take that experience with them. Where they have a choice they’ll pick G-Suite because that’s what they know best.
Many will find Office to be clunky, restrictive and old-fashioned. They will puzzle over the clumsy collaboration tools — clumsy compared to G-Suite.
More Chromebooks coming
There are reports that PC makers are looking at extending their Chromebook ranges. Microsoft’s move into own-brand hardware makes any decision here easier.
The word from the US is that by the end of the year the big PC brands will offer business-oriented Chromebooks. They’ll be cheaper than Windows PCs. Chromebooks have a lower total cost of ownership. What’s more bypass the infrastructure corporations need to make Windows and Office work.
This is happening at a time when Microsoft is in transition. The company has gone from being The PC Company, to a cloud and enterprise computing business. Windows is no longer central.
Office licence revenue remains strong. Yet defending this may soon be a distraction from Microsoft’s new corporate mission. The company seems to have lost interest in Windows or, at least, pushed it down the pecking order.
This leaves a vacuum. Apple isn’t going to fill the gap. It has its own mission, the brand will remain a niche up-market option. Google has its eyes on the bulk of the market.
None of this will happen overnight. Most likely we’ll see Google gain market share at Microsoft’s expense for a while. Then something else happens to change the dynamic. A possibility is for Microsoft to spin-off what, by then, will be the non-core business.
Either way, Windows’ dominance is over. Google has an opportunity to win customers.