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Brand destruction: Microsoft's Office 2007?

Brand destruction: Microsoft's Office 2007?

Introduction

Introduction

Microsoft launched two major products in 2007, Windows Vista and Office 2007. Both of these are, presumably, central to the corporation's cash stream and to the hold which it has over hundreds of millions of computer users. It is, therefore, surprising to see that both of these new products play poorly to this strength. Indeed, they seem to have been designed and launched with other motives in mind. We see this as an egregious strategic error, and this text sets out our views on the cause and consequence of this.

Software marketing and brand inertia

Software marketing and brand inertia

There was a far-off time when software was sought out for its rarity value. Visicalc was the first and only spread sheet until Lotus 123 appeared. If you wanted to carry out accountancy, you had to spend whatever the owners chose to charge for the product. Prices fell sharply as new entrants came into the market, and brands began to differentiate on a mixture of cost, reliability and functionality.

This phase has plainly ended. One can acquire excellent and reliable software products either for free or for relatively small sums, either off the Internet or from the CDs attached to most computer magazines. Highly priced, non-specialist software has been able to maintain its position against this for two reasons which have much to do with each other. One of these, now much blunted by the convergence on standard formats, is the need for inter-compatibility. Of far greater importance are, however, corporate switching costs.

It takes a person between six and eighteen months to become adept with a complex package such as Adobe Photoshop. A company which has trained its graphics designers has made, therefore, a considerable investment in these people. A major shift in the way in which the package is used - in the key strokes which pull up a brush or select a path, for example - would cripple the productivity of this workforce until they were used to the change. If the costs of making this change are greater than the benefits that accrue from using the new software, then companies are not likely to upgrade to it. Its cost is essentially irrelevant, for they will seldom match the person months of lost productivity that the change will cost.

Microsoft has, of course, captured hundreds of millions of office workers into the habits of using if Office suite. Of the components of Office, only PowerPoint stands out as having no clear rival. Word is 'just a thing you type in', packed - some would say, bloated - with features that are seldom used. (For example, it can be used as an HTML editor, but the experience of doing this is seldom a happy one.) Excel performs well within its limits, but is hapless when used with large data sets, or when set tasks that go beyond the most basic statistical exploration. And so on: Access is not much used, Outlook is instantly replaceable by a thousand freeware equivalents; and so on.

However - and it is the "however" that maintained IBM as Bishop of the priesthood of the Blue Altar during their two decades of world domination - it is the corporate IT professionals who specify what software business users will be permitted to use. Microsoft products have - or perhaps, had - become the safe choice for the IT professional. The packages do, after all, fulfil their prime requirement, which is to deliver basic functionality. They are relatively easy to maintain on a network. Users have become used to them, and large fortunes have been spent on training and support. Companies which have invested in such software across their user base are assured inter-compatibility internally and with their peers. New recruits are likely to "speak Office", and people who move in the organisation will encounter a familiar set of products when they settle into their new desk.

There are, of course, free products (such as OpenOffice) can be configured to look very much as does Microsoft's products, and which are almost key-stroke compatible with them. Excepting the PowerPoint analogue - where the graphics do not work as smoothly as the native product - these are effectively indistinguishable from Microsoft's products. However, they can be acquired at no direct cost to the firm, and only the fear of the unknown holds the rational IT professional back from recommending them. However, the cynic might say that having a hefty budget - and being sure that Microsoft will back you up is anything goes wrong - weighs more with IT professionals than does generating shareholder value. Our entirely uncynical view is that the low adoption rate of OpenOffice in the corporate environment is probably down to a mixture of rational concerns - with, for example, security - anxiety about future migration routes and, of course, plain ignorance amongst the general managers who oversee the IT department about potential savings.

Disrupting the complacency: a strategic catastrophe?

Disrupting the complacency: a strategic catastrophe?

Expensive software is able to maintain its market share, therefore, as a result of a mixture of complacency and concern about switching costs. It is, therefore, extremely foolish for company with a dominant market share to present its users with a costly discontinuity. This is what Microsoft has done with its 2007 product launches. The operating system, Vista, seems to us to be a consumer product that is aimed at the home user, and we will not comment on it. Office 2007, however, is pitched directly at the corporate market and it appears likely to achieve a hard landing.

Office 2007 - a discontinuity for experienced users.

Office 2007 - a discontinuity for experienced users.

This article is not intended to be a review of Office 2007. Nevertheless, it is necessary to understand how this product differs from previous editions of the Office suite. It has, apparently, been completely re-written - not something to concern the user, however - but it has been equipped with a completely new interface, which most certainly is.

What you see when you launch the product (after an interminable wait) is a 'look' that is no longer an extension of the desk top preference that you may have established. Instead, you can have a gray, murky pink or grayish blue imposed on a layout which you cannot change. This is a regressive step. One used, for example, to be able to customise tool bars and dock them where you wanted them, but no longer. One is allowed but one customisable task bar, and that shall be at the top of the screen. This means that all PowerPoint slides are now seen in miniature - or overlapping the screen edge - and they prone to faun-like leaps sideways when assorted panels appear and disappear. The icons on this, the sole tool bar, can be customised, but the graphics which are used for this are often identical to each other, so you have to recall that "change font" is "the one I put on the left". The icons are coloured predominantly in gray-blue and magenta shades, making them extremely hard to tell apart, at least to our sample of users. This contrasts with the clear monochrome icons which one could dock anywhere, leaving the vertical dimension of the screen uncluttered for work.

Then there is the thing they call the ribbon. Excepting for what used to be the "File" menu, there are no menus on offer, just menu headings. If you click on one of these - not hover to select, but click - then a bar appears laden with blurry icons. Some of these produce action panels (some appearing in windows desktop colours and fonts, some of them in the Office 2007 enforced standard; some of them floating and some embedded as rivals to screen space to the work area. Some appear beside - say - a PowerPoint slide, so that it leaps sideways - whilst others hover over it, so you cannot see what you are doing.) You have to click again - three clicks in all - to get rid of the ribbon thing.

None of these options - none of them at all - follow anything that one had learned in earlier versions of Office. Utterly obscure stuff is put on a level with the most basic. Crucial stuff is often hidden in completely unintuitive locations. One is reduced to weeping frustration as deadlines creep closer.

Former key-stroke series - for example, Alt F S for File Save - still work. However, there is no way of learning new ones as the menus are gone and the ribbon has no key letters high lighted. (In fairness, Help does offer a list that you can learn. However, there is no on-the-job learning and reinforcement.)

As has already been mentioned, something of the former File menu remains, but now as a gaudy button you have to click. It has a layout which is completely different, in every way, from the rest of Office 2007: font, colour scheme, the treatment of icons. These icons vary from being few millimetre high to occupying half the page. They are also orange, for no clear reason

It is possible to customise the ribbon, using third party software. Groups of commands can be removed and new groups created. However, the root categories of the ribbon can not be changed. When we customised our ribbons, two thirds of the "headings" - former menus items) became completely depopulated, because we found their content to be useless. This said, it was impossible to restore the original work flow with which we were familiar.

All of this would be unfortunate if it was the narrow gateway to a 'better world'. However, we could see no functional improvements. The screen fonts are somewhat clearer on poor quality screens. There are new file formats, but these are useless when third parties do not have Office 2007 installed. The same can be said for the apparently new "graphics engine", which may or may do fine things in the background but which is completely invisible to the user, and irrelevant if the resulting file is to run on older software. To our inspection, PowerPoint has no new facilities that are worth mentioning, and neither does Word. Excel, too, has much the same functionality as before. It still has the same basic chart options it offered when it was launched. You can only label a scatter plot's points manually, there is no true 3D or poly-D charting and the data mining capabilities are risible.

Outlook also has much the same functionality, not so much change to its interface but - and this is a major 'but' for some users - when not set as the default e-mail client, it still tries to muscle in whenever an e-mail client is evoked by other software. It cannot be de-installed and can only be firewalled off from the Internet. This produces frequent alerts and alarms.

Conclusions

Conclusions

Our assessment of this product was extremely negative. One got nothing that was new, but all of one's hard-won skills were trashed. As an example, it took a day to create a ten pages of a 20 slide presentation in Office 2007 PowerPoint. The remaining ten pages were done in an hour in Office 2003.

This brings us back to the issue with which we began. People use the expensive Microsoft Office over other products which are much cheaper - or free - for a variety of reasons. All of these reasons are overturned if the product requires as much effort to re-learn as would starting afresh with a new product. Having seen grown people weeping over this product - or pounding the desk, shouting at the screen - it is very clear that just such a discontinuity has been reached. At best, IT specialists will hold off upgrading to Office 2007 until a "Windows classic" user interface is launched, and at worst (for Microsoft) they will move onto new, cheaper and simpler products. A word processor only has to process words, after all, not bundle facilities best approached through stand-alone products.

This may seem a trivial matter: Microsoft has, after all, launched other products that were less than successful, such as Windows 98. The company did not seem to lose very much thereby. However, to get one of its primary income streams quite so lamentably wrong - and, it would seem, to offer nothing attractive to the corporate user, and much to shun, in its new operating system - seems a different proposition. One wonders how the strategic planners in Microsoft could have allowed the product specifications to wander quite so far astray.

It would be logical for Microsoft to divide its offer into two streams, aimed respectively at the commercial and consumer markets. It seems plain that this approach was under consideration when the operating system paths diverged into NT and Windows 98. The eventual merger of the offer into XP may well have been a temporary reversion from this trend. Vista would then be seen as the consumer product, and XP Pro and its successors as the business operating system. However, in making life safe and easy for the novice, Office 2007 has the danger - the very present danger, in our opinion - of turning away the commercial user. Indeed, if it is intended to be the consumer product version of Office (analogous to Office Works) then this does the novice no favours, for they will be de-skilled when confronted with the standard format. Heaven only knows, therefore, what Microsoft thought that they were doing. It seems likely that group-think and project inertia delivered this dogs' breakfast.

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