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10/24/2013
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Microsoft Exec Trashes Apple's Free iWork Software

Microsoft VP Frank Shaw made several valid points when he criticized Apple's new products and strategy. But he missed the boat on others.

 Microsoft Surface: 10 Best And Worst Changes
Microsoft Surface: 10 Best And Worst Changes
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Microsoft corporate VP of communications Frank Shaw lashed out Wednesday at this week's announcements from rival Apple, particularly its new iPads and decision to offer its iWork productivity suite and other software for free.

The no-cost iWork strategy is "not a very big (or very good) deal," Shaw wrote in an official blog post. He called Apple's apps "watered down," arguing iWork is both less popular and powerful than Microsoft Office. He also dismissed the value iWork adds to iPads, characterizing Apple's strategy as "an effort to convince people that their entertainment devices are really work machines."

It's easy to see why Shaw was on the defensive; while announcing its new products Tuesday in San Francisco, Apple executives took a number of none-too-subtle swipes at Microsoft's Windows and Office products.

Microsoft was never mentioned by name, but Windows and Office logos were often used as visual aids as Apple execs bemoaned the high prices other companies charge for their operating systems and daily productivity applications.

[ Why is Apple is giving its software away? See Apple Embraces Free: 5 Reasons Why. ]

Apple CEO Tim Cook called these competitors "confused." He shrugged off the threat Windows tablets pose to the iPad, stating that competitors first doubted Apple's tablet strategy and are now misguidedly "trying to make PCs into tablets and tablets into PCs."

Shaw pointed out that the Surface and Surface 2 not only cost less than the iPad 2 and iPad Air, respectively, but also come preinstalled with Office 2013 RT, which now includes Outlook RT. He also noted that unlike iPads, Surface tablets boast productivity-geared features such as peripheral ports, true multitasking, first-party keyboards and an integrated kickstand.

Apple is "waking up to the fact that [Microsoft has] built a better solution" for people who want a single device for both work and play, Shaw said.

Shaw also said that because iWork has "never gotten much traction, and was already priced like an afterthought," it's neither surprising nor significant that Apple decided to lower prices. He argued that the iPad-maker hasn't thrown down the gauntlet, contrary to what some media figures have claimed; rather, he said, Apple is actually attempting to "play catch up."

This sort of feisty rhetoric isn't surprising coming from Shaw. In September, he criticized the media for underappreciating not only retiring Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's past successes, but also the potential of Ballmer's "devices and services" strategy.

Shaw also took umbrage earlier this month with New York Times columnist David Pogue's review of Windows 8.1, stating in a Twitter post that the review was "skewed and inaccurate."

Shaw's most recent objections are not without merit. Office 365 continues to accrue high-profile contracts, including a growing number among government agencies. It was also on pace in August for $1.5 billion in annual revenue, a 50% improvement from earlier in the year.

Microsoft additionally has a new program through which many students will gain no-cost Office 365 subscriptions, which could somewhat offset the appeal of free alternatives such as iWork and Google Docs.

In an interview, Forrester analyst David Johnson said that Microsoft can still dictate many of its own terms when it comes to Office, noting that the product offers the consistent experience that businesses and institutions require.

But Microsoft still faces legitimate challenges. Johnson said that because the company has not yet released Office for the iPad, it has opened the door for mobile competitors.

One can also pick apart Shaw's contention that iPads cannot be used for productivity. He's right that new Windows devices allow people to work in ways that iPads simply don't -- but the contention that iPads are simply entertainment devices is somewhat myopic.

Apple hasn't overtly positioned iPads as productivity tools; rather, many of the iPad's work-related functions have developed organically, due as much to the whims of users and app developers as Apple itself. Apple execs alluded to this trend when they introduced the new devices, playing a video in which iPads are used to help fly planes, choreograph dance routines, explore the ocean floor and perform other unexpected tasks.

For many, such activities qualify as "real work." But it's a fundamentally different kind of work than programs such as Office facilitate. It remains to be seen whether products such as iWork can help iPads gain a greater foothold in more traditionally minded productivity tasks, or if Microsoft's more laptop-like Surface tablets will gain traction.

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