Office Wars

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Although Microsoft has denied the media reports, it seems likely we’re on the threshold of Office coming to the iPad. I’m writing this on Word on the Mac, but it won’t be long before Pages will have some serious competition. If Microsoft pulls back, there’s OnLIve Desktop that delivers Office as a cloud service with a free version up to 2 gigs of storage. Adobe delivered Photoshop Touch for the iPad this morning. Why now?

The most obvious reason is that Apple has reached a tipping point with its tablet platform, where PCs have become little more than set-top boxes for streaming services. We recently bought the second season of Downton Abbey; I downloaded it to my iPad while we watched the Grammys on cable. I figured I’d use AirPlay to stream it to the Apple TV in the living room, but when I switched over to the small box, the show was already listed thanks to iCloud. Effectively, the smallest box in the house, Apple TV, was the server.

We’d gotten hooked on Season One on Netflix, which already has become the dominant source of programming for the 60-inch Sony in the living room. You’d think it would be outweighed by network shows, the View, and live events, but with our daughter running non-stop Grey’s Anatomy and Lost-fests on the biggest screen whenever possible, the competition for control has overcome the other shows. With more and more original programming transferring to Netflix and TV Everywhere, the set-top box is quickly becoming the control point.

If rumors of Apple TV undergoing a hardware refresh in March are correct, it may suggest both an upgrade to 1080p for iPad 3 and some improvement in the WiFi routing capabilities of the AirPlay network. While TV Everywhere only supports mobile devices today, there’s no reason why Comcast (or other TV Anywhere partners) wouldn’t see the value in extending their OnDemand extended episode access to Apple TV customers. Already you can use AirPlay to push downloads up to the big screen; why not cut the mobile cord altogether?

HBO will continue to exercise its leverage to constrain its original productions to the big cable cord model, but competition at the content level is accelerating. HBO series such as Luck with Dustin Hoffman are not available on iTunes, but audiences are accustomed to such windowing tactics with movies and will move on to other more accessible series. This is what Microsoft and Adobe are afraid of with Office and the shrinking PC software market.

Once the incumbents blink, then the real battle begins. OnLive shows one strategy, moving to the cloud while preserving the document-centric model of Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and, tellingly, Gmail instead of Outlook. Already the Google cloud product is a better fit, at least in the marketing screen that greets you when you go to the site. But there’s a wall between OnLive’s apps and other apps on your iPad that will need to be bridged, and in the process Microsoft will be forced to give up effective control of the overall experience as is happening with Hollywood and the record business.

The real platform becomes the push notification bus, where cooperating apps post alerts and exchange data with virtual clipboards of dynamic data. By cloning iOS as much as possible with Windows 8, Microsoft hopes to provide an iPad experience compatible with its forthcoming Windows Phone and tablet architecture. The Windows and Office teams may have finally made the decision to jump to parity with Apple, just as they did with Windows NT and Adobe to successfully (that time) force a transition off the Mac in graphics and video processing. That would explain Adobe’s move as well, as the ex-Flash provider keeps Microsoft from squeezing out Photoshop at Adobe’s weakest moment. OnLive Flash support is window dressing at best and months from irrelevance.

For me, Office represents an increasingly minor amount of screen time in my computing experience, while social computing is transitioning much of that work to stream-based objects. Google’s forced march of Google + data into its social experience may be a good long term move for the search company, but it comes at the cost of meshing with Apple’s accelerated Twitter interoperability. As Chatter builds out support for Customer groups across Salesforce business customers and their partners, Twitter’s direct messages and @mention authority model are being extended in this new form of collaborative communication.

Microsoft and its partners are right to confront this new model before it’s too late. They only have to look to our behavior at the end of the work day to understand how quickly we will shift the rest of our time. As one Upstairs character suggests about a Downstairs character she fancies in Downton Abbey, in times of war those distinctions of class mean less and less. When time is short, pragmatism takes root, and once in place, it’s very hard to displace.