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Adobe at the door of Microsoft’s Office

Here’s the thing — there’s this world war going on. It’s not one with standing armies, weapons of mass destruction or even nations, one set against the other. It’s not even a war where people die, but a war whose outcome is likely to change the lives of tens of millions of people for years to come. This is the kind of war where pixels & bytes are both the currency and the weapons of choice for our chief protagonists — Adobe and Microsoft…

Strangely enough, Sam Gustin over at Portfolio pretty much says everything I was going to say about Microsoft’s glacially-paced reaction to formerly Google and more recently Adobe getting into office productivity:

“The Redmond, Washington, software giant today introduced Office Live Workspace, ‘a Web-based feature of Microsoft Office that enables people to access their documents online anywhere and easily share their work with others.’

The move suggests that Microsoft feels it can no longer wait as Google and Adobe move aggressively to shift the focus of software from individual PCs to the web.”

Problem is, Microsoft is caught in the headlights of the juggernaut that is disruptive technology. Which is ironic because that’s pretty much a role reversal.

This conflict has been slow – ponderous at times – and one of tactics, stealth and attrition. Fortunately for Adobe, Google has been a worthy accomplice, in that they too are coming at Microsoft from the point of view of office productivity software.

I think if you sat down the guys from Adobe and Google and asked them how they see their respective on-line office software, they’d probably smile and be quite honest about how in many respects, they compete with each other.

Underlining the changes

However, this is a different world to the one we had ten years ago. Back then, consolidation and standardization made all of the sense in the world. And oh my, how things have changed!

Now, people like choice. Businesses like choice. Choice also has certain qualities conducive to good security. All of which either attack Microsoft at the root, or are an anathema to their entire business edifice.

So things have changed, especially for Microsoft, in that they are utterly incapable of making a serious move towards the web with their Office suite. And the reason is? Because the perception is that anything that’s web-based can’t really command the same fees as its desktop-based counterpart.

But it’s not like Microsoft hasn’t had to deal with issues of perception before. Just look at their Xbox. Who’d have thought that Microsoft would have come out with something like that?

The problem is Microsoft can’t afford the loss in revenue. And even if they charged as much for their essentially crippled web-based Office package, the transition and cannibalization of sales would hurt them very badly indeed.

Right now, Microsoft absolutely relies on Office and Windows for their revenues. They’re desperate to diversify, and that’s why Microsoft has pushed hard into the creative space with their Expression range.

Office software – in a Flash!

If you look at what Adobe has with Flash – which in fairness is entirely replicable with Microsoft Silverlight – it’s easier for Adobe to push out into Microsoft turf than it is for Microsoft to press forward into Adobe territory.

Office productivity is processor-light stuff, nothing that’s going to tax the resources of your computer, let alone your web browser. So it’s relatively easy to go in that direction. And when Adobe rolled out Buzzword, their web-based word processor, I wasn’t entirely surprised.

However, to forge ahead and take on some creative smarts, you have to leave the web browser behind, forget about Flash, XHTML, CSS, PHP et cetera and look to C / C++ and write hard code.

Playing to your strengths and your enemies weaknesses

Adobe: their new web application Buzzword can be adapted to work with or include their PDF technology, which really opens the door to all kinds of crazy stuff:

“Adobe gets to bolster its own PDF-centered document workflow, as well as promoting its own development frameworks for the next-generation of web-based applications.”

Microsoft: having clearly tried to extend the reach and remit of Office to the on-line world, their ambitions are forever tied to their business model, which is clearly extremely inflexible. In effect, their Office Live Workspace is a hobbled offering:

“… you cannot create new Office documents with this feature nor can you edit documents beyond adding comments without having a copy of Microsoft Office installed locally.”

The rules of engagement

That’s what Microsoft has taken on, and they’re presently looking up a decided uneven playing field, with the sun in their eyes and kicking into the wind.

From where I’m sitting (and I paid good money for this seat, by the way) I don’t see a long-term win for Microsoft. I see them leaving things too close to the final whistle, just as they did with Internet Explorer, and hoping their weight will carry them over the line…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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