Office has been a wildly successful product for Microsoft, but its continued dominance is far from assured as software moves to the cloud and employees bring their own tablets and smartphones into work.
On Monday, when Microsoft is expected to unwrap the next version of Office at a press event headlined by CEO Steve Ballmer, it will become clearer whether the company is propelling the suite forward for continued success or setting it up for failure.
The impact of the latter on Microsoft as a whole would be catastrophic, since the ubiquitous suite of productivity applications is one the biggest profit engines for the company.
To beat back competitors like Google Apps, Office must evolve into an easier to use, tablet- and smartphone-friendly product, and one that doesn't penalize customers who access it via the cloud with big feature gaps and complicated setups.
Specifically, Microsoft must overcome its reticence to make an Office version for iPads and Android tablets. And it must beef up Office 365, its year-old cloud suite that includes online versions of Office, Lync, SharePoint and Exchange.
These aren't easy moves for Microsoft, in part because they risk affecting the sales and margins of what has been a cash cow product.
However, Microsoft has indicated that it intends to be bold with this new version of the suite, which will be called Office 2013, according to people familiar with the plans.
When it announced a limited "Technology Preview" of the new version in January, under the code-name Office 15, Microsoft said the upgrade would evolve not only the suite's productivity applications like Word, Excel and PowerPoint, but also Office 365 and the on-premise versions of collaboration and communications products like Exchange, Lync and SharePoint. The refresh would extend not only to PC interfaces, but also to tablets and smartphones.
Above all, Microsoft must emphasize ease of use and avoid the shock many long-time users got when Office 2010 came out and they found that the placement of menus and commands had been significantly altered.
"In the last version of Office, Microsoft swapped the gas pedal and the break pedal," said analyst Rebecca Wettemann of Nucleus Research.
It now has an opportunity to organize the suite's myriad functions in the user interface in a way that is friendlier to users.
"For a long time, with each new version, Microsoft has focused on giving Office a gazillion new features, which helps with completeness but not usability," said Guy Creese, a Gartner analyst.
"Microsoft doesn't need to remove features, nor dumb down the product -- just don't assault users with all these features as it has historically done," he said.
Also critical and long overdue is a version of Office for Android and iOS smartphones and tablets.
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