A couple of years back my colleagues and I were discussing the importance of Google’s entrance into the cloud services space, and how their new service, Google Docs, would benefit small businesses and individuals. The proposition was simple: give us a bit of your personal information by signing up for a GMail account, and we’ll let you create, edit and share documents à la Microsoft Office. Initially, the sentiment was that such an underpowered, cloud-only productivity software wouldn’t meet the needs of consumers. That sentiment WAS correct. Fast forward seven years, Google Docs has grown and now integrates many of the features that longtime Office users crave. It has also proven to be a great aid for cash strapped small businesses and students that would otherwise have to pay for productivity software. Now Microsoft has announced Office Online, a free web-based version of its Office suite.
So why would we start a conversation about Microsoft’s latest move with a story about Google Docs? It’s simple: the technology industry’s ever-changing pace requires companies to be agile in the way they develop new products. While we can only speculate, Microsoft’s decision to make Office Online free has probably something to do with Google. Microsoft, however, was not the first to react to Google’s cloud based apps. Late 2011 saw the release of Apple’s iCloud, which offers similar document creating tools. So what does Office Online have to offer?
Firstly, it is great to see that Microsoft has learned. It no longer stubbornly sits on legacy software written in the last millennium. The company as a whole, new CEO included, has started a long yet focused shift towards the cloud and into the consumer space it once ignored. Let’s not forget Microsoft’s cash cow is its enterprise business, which provides about half of its profits, and it keeps growing. Things have changed, however, and the business known by millions for its enterprise-geared operating system and apps is now trying to be a consumer first company.
Secondly, Office Online has an actual intuitive and appealing design. The signup process is fairly easy, as all is needed is a valid Email address and personal information. Once logged in, the user is welcomed with the familiar Office 2013 design language and menu options. Some consumers find this easier to navigate as it mimics the desktop and tablet versions of the software. However, some users will find the interface to be too “bloated”, especially those who don’t think highly of Office for desktop. Personally, I think is a step in the right direction. Let’s not forget Microsoft is playing catch-up, so they need to offer a full-fledged solution to remain relevant in the consumer space.
Thirdly, Microsoft is offering five of its most important apps for free. During the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the Windows monopoly forced users to rely on Office to write documents, make presentations, draw up spreadsheets and check Emails. We are all familiar with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, One Note and Outlook, and some of us decided to let go of them as we moved to the cloud. Now Microsoft is reaching back to those customers with an appealing offer. Too little, too late? We’ll see.
Lastly, since the introduction of Bing in 2009, Microsoft has been in the “getting to know you” business. In other words, they offer a “free” service (search with Bing, productivity with Office Online) in the exchange of our personal information. Companies then turn our input into a big data aggregate used to better develop their products or to sell it to advertisers. While there is nothing particularly wrong with this business model, we as internet users should be aware of how our information is being used. So if you’re comfortable sharing your information with Facebook, Google, Apple and now Microsoft, and you feel you’re getting a good service in exchange, you have nothing to worry about. Don’t forget to try out Microsoft Online and share your feedback with us.
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