In an email interview earlier this month, Forrester analyst David Johnson summarized the challenge Microsoft faces in arriving so late to the game: "Microsoft's strategy of not delivering a useful Office product on iOS, ostensibly to preserve the Windows franchise (but also probably because it's a significant engineering effort) is limiting the freedom of consumers to choose the devices and operating systems that they want."
Johnson added that because natively using Office on a tablet demands embracing Windows 8 or Windows RT, many are simply exploring Office alternatives.
These alternatives pose a limited but significant threat. Office will remain the enterprise productivity standard for the foreseeable future, so a large user base is sure to greet an iPad-optimized version, whenever it arrives. But consumer adoption, and thus BYOD implications, could be another story.
[ What's in store for iOS and Android fans of Office? Read Microsoft's Office For iOS, Android Dilemma. ]
Apple is now offering free downloads of its iWork suite with the purchase of new iOS devices, for example, a move that is surely increasing the Office competitor's market share by leaps and bounds. Analysts told InformationWeek last month that although iWork isn't an Office-killer, it could still disrupt Microsoft's monopoly; documents might originate in the workplace via Word or Excel, but as soon as an employee wants to peruse or modify those documents at home, they could easily end up in iWork.
Make no mistake, Microsoft still stands to earn billions from the eventual release. But by waiting, it also might have left billions on the table. If the company had already released an iPad-optimized version of Office, its market position would likely be unassailable across all platforms, from mobile to desktop to the cloud. Revenue from mobile-friendly Office 365, already increasing at an impressive clip, might also be higher, which could in turn feed Windows Azure and other emerging profit streams. Microsoft might have been forgiven for leaving these opportunities untapped had its Office strategy motivated sales of Windows tablets -- but that hasn't yet been the case.
The alpha variable is how good Office on the iPad will be. As Johnson noted, creating a touch-oriented Office UI is a significant engineering challenge. Ballmer lightly alluded to as much at Gartner's event.
For all the radical interface changes in Windows 8, much of Microsoft's sales pitch has involved treating tablets more like laptops, rather than -- like Apple -- treating them as a distinct tool. Excluding the obvious difference in screen size, using Office on a Surface tablet is basically the same as using it on a desktop. Microsoft should be farther into the process than it is, but it's still encouraging to hear Ballmer emphasize the importance of creating a new interaction model.
Talking about a new interface is different than creating one, of course. Many of Microsoft's attempts to implement touch-first models, such as the Modern UI home screen, have met with mixed-to-negative reviews. The version of Office that comes baked into Windows Phones and that's available via Office 365 subscriptions for iPhones and Android smartphones was likewise greeted with a collective shrug. Given this history, Microsoft could certainly bomb out with a haptic-focused Office.
But none of Microsoft's competitors has really cracked mobile productivity either. iWork, Quickoffice and other replacements for Office on the iPad are filling gaps, but none has rewritten the book. If Microsoft's long development period culminates in a product that's useful both with and without a keyboard, users will be more likely to open their wallets.
In his latest remarks, Ballmer offered few hints. He explicitly confirmed for the first time that an iPad-native version of Office is coming, bringing clarity to a recent a series of hints and partial statements. But the company already has some pieces in place. Cloud hooks are an important aspect of modifying and sharing documents while mobile, and though Apple appears to be making efforts in this vein, Microsoft is further along.
The extent to which Microsoft translates Office's power and deep feature set to a new interaction model, though, will dictate the extent to which the software will succeed, especially among consumers and BYOD workers. If iWork offers 95% of Office's utility for most iPad users, Microsoft will be pressured to release the app for free or for little cost, or to risk remaining a niche tablet player if it insists on coupling the iPad version to Office 365, as it has with the iPhone edition. But if Microsoft delivers a superior interaction model, it can make up for lost time, and then some.
Office for the iPad also means that Windows tablets will have to stand on their own merits, rather than using the world's most ubiquitous PC productivity software as a crutch. That makes the Office UI stakes that much higher. In other words, if Windows tablets continue to trail iOS and Android tablets in popularity, software and services represent Microsoft's alternate path to short-term tablet relevance. That means if Office for the iPad underwhelms because it's not meaningfully better than competitors, Microsoft will be striking out on multiple fronts.
Microsoft's challenges have grown so large mostly because the company's mobile push arrived so late. But much of that can change, as long as touch-first Office apps are worth the wait.