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What Keeps Microsoft Office Strong is Incompetence

There, do I have your attention with that headline?  And how the heck can incompetence make a product strong?  No doubt you’re assuming I mean Microsoft’s incompetence, but it’s quite the opposite.  I am referring to the myriad competitors to Microsoft Office.

I got started on this rant after reading Larry Dignan’s rehash of a Bernstein report on Cloud Computing (executive summary: lots of buzz but it won’t have that big an impact, they’re wrong, but that’s the subject of another rant another time).

Getting back to the subject of incompetence, that is perhaps too harsh a word, but what’s wrong here, the reason cloud versions of the Office products are not getting uptake, is tragically avoidable.  I agree 100% with Bernstein’s analysis of what that problem is:

While Google Apps and Open Office from Sun have almost all of the functionality of Microsoft’s Office the conversion of documents is still not 100% effective, although Open Office comes very close indeed.  In a recent test Open Office could easily open a Word version of one of our published notes with formatting that was over 98% accurate.  Open Office could similarly open one of our financial models written in Excel – over 3Mb, and using a variety of Microsoft functions with iterative calculation.  Once again the document opened almost perfectly but a minor change was needed to ensure the model converged properly.  Google Docs did less well and could not handle the Excel model but opened our Word note and preserved about 90% of the formatting. Even though these programs are very nearly comparable in functionality and can offer additional functionality in terms of allowing users to simultaneously edit documents – which the client versions of Word and Excel cannot do – we still perceive considerable reluctance on the part of users and IT Departments to use them. 

The mystery to me is why these vendors can’t get compatibility with MS Office right.  There has to be some form of incompetence there, because it just isn’t that hard.

Let me explain.  I was a General in the Office Wars of the 80’s and 90’s.  I was responsible for Borland’s Quattro Pro.  It was 100% compatible not just with Excel, but before that with Lotus 1-2-3 during the DOS days when that product was King of the Hill.  None of the kinds of errors described for today’s MS Office competitors existed in our offering because I knew that any little hiccup trying ot use the original files would be the kiss of death.  As a matter of fact, on the predecessor to Quattro Pro, a product called Surpass, I personally did all the file compatibility work with Lotus 1-2-3.  It took me 4-6 months as I recall, and this while I was CEO of the company and working on a lot of other things.

Borland also had a Windows Word Processor that was MS Word compatible.   Unfortunately, we never got it shipped for various historical reasons (largely profitability issues made us fight over whether to spend the money, my argument was a single app can’t beat a suite no matter how good it is, the rest is history), but we were compatible there too.  And of course we were compatible in the database market, having shipped software that was compatible with dBase.

We were by no means the only software at that time to achieve that level of compatibility.  It is a mystery to me why the industry seems to have lost the capacity to think and execute in those terms.  It is no harder today than it was then.  The Quattro Pro product was built start to finish with just 10 developers in about 18 months.  I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be straightforward to do it again from scratch with a very similar budget.  That’s certainly within the reach of Google and others who want Office-killers.  Yet they don’t get it done.

Outlook is even more vulnerable than Office, yet there is no good synchronization software available for the non-email functions of Outlook.  Lest you send me a flurry of comments about one solution or another, be aware I’ve tried a whole bunch already.  Google’s version failed utterly.  My best result was with Plaxo, but it ultimately destroyed my calendar and contacts so I turned it off again.

The thing Bernstein, Microsoft, and these would be Cloud Upstarts have to keep in mind is that until this problem is fixed, Microsoft will keep dominating.  But it isn’t that hard to fix, and once fixed the friction preventing a switch goes down radically.  Heck, Microsoft can’t even get good uptake on Office 2007 if I look at the number of people that can’t read my files because they have the older version of Office.  Cloud Vendors, let me know if you need some names from my original Quattro Pro team.  They’re still around, still brilliant, and still able to build a product that’s 100% compatible and will get you where you want to go.

Can we get on with it?

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