Tech Lab

With new Office, Microsoft plays defense

With his casual attire and affable manner, Microsoft Corp.’s new chief executive Satya Nadella seems quite comfortable playing defense. Just as well: He will be at it for quite some time.

His company does have a lot to work with — utter dominance of the operating systems for the world’s personal computers, a vastly profitable line of office productivity software, and tens of billions in the bank. But I could have written the same sentence back in the year 2000.

Since then, hardly anything has changed, except for digital life as we know it. Microsoft Windows and Office are still dominant, and the cash keeps piling up — about $84 billion at last count. But sales of the PCs that run Microsoft software have dwindled, as shoppers snub the annoying Windows 8 operating system, and millions shift to smartphones and tablets.


Believe it or not, Microsoft was a pioneer in both these markets. But to protect the Windows franchise, the company tried to make tablets and phones work just like desktop PCs, with disastrous results. According to research firm Gartner Inc., Windows tablets sold 4 million units worldwide last year, compared with 70 million Apple Inc. iPads and 120 million tablets running Google Inc.’s Android software. Consumers bought nearly 1 billion smartphones last year, but a mere 31 million of them were Windows phones.

Meanwhile, thanks to cloud computing, our personal devices outsource their jobs to remote data centers. As a result, the brand of software running on your computer or phone or tablet matters less every day. I’ve got a new book out, written on Google’s cloud-based word processor. And I often wrote on a laptop running the free Linux operating system. Windows? Office? Who needs them?

Microsoft does, of course. And so the company is making some moves to keep those products relevant. Last week, it finally delivered a version of Microsoft Office for Apple’s iPad. It’s a smart move, though very late. There are about 200 million iPads out there, many used for business computing, and many running Office substitutes such as Apple’s iWork software suite. In fact, Apple now includes iWork free of charge on new iPads and Macintosh computers.


But with so many billions of Microsoft Office documents in circulation, there’s still plenty of demand for the real thing. The new iPad apps for Microsoft Word, the Excel spreadsheet program, and slideshow maker PowerPoint now rank among the most popular iPad downloads, despite some significant drawbacks.

For one thing, there’s the price. You can download the apps at no charge and use them to view existing Office documents. But if you want to make changes or generate a new document, get out a credit card. Office for iPad is part of Microsoft’s cloud-based Office 365 service. For $9.99 a month or $99.99 a year, you get the right to install Office on up to five PCs, Macs, or iPads. It’s Microsoft’s bid to plug an umbilical cord into your bank account.

In exchange for your money, you get the robust Office feature set, combined with a touchscreen interface that’s much user-friendlier than the annoying “ribbon” system used on the desktop version. Spend a few dollars on an external keyboard for easy typing, and the iPad version of Office is ready for serious business.


But the new Office apps have no direct printer support. You must transfer files through the cloud to a printer-connected device or use a third-party wireless printing app like ThinPrint Cloud Printer.

Also, the new apps make it easy to save your files on Microsoft’s OneDrive online storage service, but you don’t get links to other popular services such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or even Apple’s own iCloud.

It’s just Microsoft being Microsoft. Some old habits are hard to break.

Still, there are no deal-breakers here. Office for the iPad is a solid defensive play, one of many that Microsoft is now making. Faced with feeble Windows Phone sales, Microsoft’s soon-to-be-acquired phone-maker Nokia is selling Android-based phones in India.

Fretful about its home-entertainment superconsole, the Xbox One, Microsoft has unwrapped “Titanfall,” a hot new title for hard-core gamers, and vowed to emulate the games-first strategy that has made Sony’s PlayStation 4 a hit.

Smarting from the frigid response to Windows 8, Microsoft will soon offer a major update that promises to clean up the software’s famously confusing interface.

Not a breakthrough in the bunch. But I think we have all given up expecting the next big thing from Microsoft. We’d settle for consistency and competence. And judging by Office for the iPad, the Nadella era at Microsoft is off to a decent start.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.