Apple Chases Microsoft Office When It Should Be Disrupting It

At Apple's big unveiling for the new iPads yesterday, it made a lot of noise about giving away its iWork office productivity suite in a bid to unseat Microsoft Office. This led the New York Times today to boldly declare:

"Apple Targets Microsoft Office With Free Apps"

I hope not.

After all, it's a losing proposition. Just ask the folks behind OpenOffice or LibreOffice. Despite years of raging against the Office machine, they've actually gone backwards, according to a new Forrester survey. In 2011 some 11% of enterprises surveyed were experimenting with non-Microsoft alternatives to Office. But in 2013, that number is down to 5%. 

Or ask Apple, for that matter. Its iWork suite is a rounding error in the office productivity suite market.

For years various companies and communities have targeted Microsoft's multi-billion dollar cash cow, with a wide array of strategies. All have failed.

Completely.

Chasing The Wrong Dream

In part, this failure stems from a few simple facts: Microsoft Office works, it's the standard and its cost is low enough that experimenting with alternatives is rarely worth the risk.

But there's a bigger issue at stake, and that is that the office productivity suite is a relic, one with decreasing relevance in an increasingly mobile world, tied together by the Web. In my company, we use Google Docs much (much) more often than Microsoft Office. Office is there for PowerPoint presentations and little else.

Sure, contracts (Legal) are done in Word and a few people in Finance depend upon Excel. But they're the exception. The rule is that documents live in the cloud, available to all at any time and whatever their device.

Apple Isn't The Right Company To Tackle Office

Perhaps this is Apple's grand vision: to make its sleek but underpowered iWork suite a true cloud native. Perhaps.

But Apple's track record with the cloud is not great, and there's no sign that its "hardware-centric DNA" has changed.

As such, even if Apple completely nails the office productivity experience—and my own exposure with iWork suggests that it's a long, long way off—it will only have succeeded in creating a slick solution to yesterday's problems. Meanwhile, the world has moved on with productivity, living in the cloud or being redefined completely as email, web applications, etc. And so long as Apple follows Microsoft's lead, it will be forced to struggle with 100% file-format fidelity to Office formats.

Good luck with that.

Apple Is The Right Company To Change The Office Paradigm

The irony is that Apple is in pole position to lead a move away from the staid office productivity suite. Its personal productivity suite, including iMovie and iPhoto, is generally fantastic, and suggests a different slant on the boring "I want to create a document" mentality that pervades Office.

Apple should play to its strengths, giving us more tools for capturing and broadcasting our personal lives. As such, I'd rather see it buy Twitter than build iWork. The future is not typing up a document on one's computer, but rather communicating information across social and other media. It's about messaging, in other words. That's the new productivity suite.

Apple is a company helping shape tomorrow. It needn't mire itself in a Quixotic battle to put a pretty face on yesterday's office productivity suite.