We Can No Longer Unbundle Microsoft Office

Editor’s note: Tom Limongello is based in NYC and is VP of Product Marketing for Crisp Media.

It’s summertime, so we know there’s pressure to ‘unbundle’ ourselves from work as much as we can. Yet when something comes up, we are reminded of how little unbundled mobile apps offer in terms of productivity.

Sure, Marc Andreessen’s tweetstorm illustrates how 20 years of Internet history has brought innumerable benefits of software unbundling. Tom Tunguz echoed that in a recent post on the great unbundling of email, which has super-powered CRM tools. But email and messaging aren’t the only services that are core to Office software, and unbundling has really only been great for improving tools to notify and pester. Even if it is nice to ‘snooze’ our work, isn’t it the documents that count?

This spring we witnessed the big three OS manufacturers — Microsoft, Apple and Google — continue to unbundle their versions of Microsoft Office apps for mobile, including versions of PowerPoint, Excel and Word for iPad. You’ve also seen Craig Federighi’s endurance test at Apple’s WWDC where he juggled all three Apple devices in order to demo the concept of app handoffs. At Google I/O we saw that Google Drive has improved mobile document syncing so that Google Drive isn’t totally useless on iOS and Android.

These are all good things, and we can now safely say that the OS providers have now fully unbundled their productivity software. Yet “Sent from my iPhone” is still a valid excuse for putting off work, and ‘continuity’ does not change the 30+ year perception instilled by Microsoft Office that real work comes in file formats, like Word, Powerpoint and Excel.

Ask any VC, and they will tell you that mobile apps should do just one thing really well. However, there are some startups out there who don’t want to follow the same playbook at Microsoft, Apple and Google. Those startups would argue that unbundled features favor the individual, but at the heart of productivity software are workflows that are set up for the good of a team. These startups don’t want to make widgets and extensions for the same old Office products; they want to roll up their own interfaces. They want to bundle to avoid the issues that plague mobile productivity, like needless app switching, poor syncing architecture, and feature and data silos.

Office History <

In 2007, productivity reached the cloud when the EU forced Microsoft to open the file formats to OpenXML and add an x at the end of our familiar file extensions .pptx, .xlsx and .docx. Google Docs also quickly floated cloud versions of each Office document format. However, in the same year, Apple launched iPhone without a view to file storage on the device. Since then a lot of startup innovation came from Dropbox and Box unbundling file storage from the OS, but software that enables the creation and editing of files on touchscreen devices has been less of a concern.

Open for business

Three years ago, CloudOn CEO Milind Gadekar started using OpenXML formats to bring Microsoft Office to iPad. Since then, the company opened its interface to file authoring tools from Office and Google Drive, and storage providers like Dropbox, Box and Hightail, Google Drive, and OneDrive, and will soon be hard at work adding Apple’s CloudDrive. CloudOn feels that if it focuses on providing the best compatibility and exportability across devices, then they can be the place where users can “preserve, render and manipulate” documents on mobile.

Once CloudOn can maintain its goal of giving consumers a familiar look and feel and lossless publishing for all the most popular document creation and storage providers, they plan to optimize for touchscreens. CloudOn sees only single-digit-minute session times in files, so their next step is to enable gestures to edit charts and annotate text with your fingers to help make better use of that time.

Bundling for a new outlook on mail

If we look at why bundling features across disciplines could improve a mobile app, Acompli has made it dead simple to figure out when you are free to meet from iPhone. I asked Javier Soltero, CEO and Co-Founder of Acompli about their new feature “Send Availability,” which lets you tap on your available time slots and push that formatted schedule right into the body of an email. He explained that bundling features across different productivity apps is nothing new for Microsoft or even Apple:

Outlook always had the calendar inside its desktop email client, and even Apple knows the value of bundling apps. The Phone app on iPhone has contacts built into it because Apple believes in a design syntax of action then subject, so if I want to make a call, I go to the action to make a call before I look up the subject in my contacts app. App switching is hard on any device, and frankly I think the new iOS 8 concept of fixing this with ‘Continuity’ is a cop-out. My sales prospect doesn’t care if I’m using the right device. Feature-bundled workflows to get things done on the device you’re looking at are necessities, not nice pairings like chocolate and peanut butter.

Another startup with ‘cloud’ branding, CloudMagic, wants their mobile email client to be the dominant window to productivity on mobile. Co-Founder Rohit Nadhani realized that 80 percent of searches from his toolbar in the first iteration of the CloudMagic product were used to search within email. Rohit explained that the reason we hadn’t seen apps improve much on Apple’s Mail for iPhone was because other apps were not able to run in the background and therefore relegated to IMAP, which didn’t include ways to store email for quick search. So, he moved in a different direction that enabled an ability to act upon emails immediately.

CloudMagic now uses the card metaphor popularized by Google Now to bypass app switching. It integrates note taking and project management tools right into your email by using APIs from apps like Evernote and Trello to tag and delegate tasks from the email body. Rohit feels that the catch-all email addresses that started in the 2000s like plans@tripit.com were great if they performed a function like automated scheduling, but have since just become catch-alls that vaguely push work away from you but don’t provide real value.

For some, the new markup feature on Apple’s OSX Yosemite doesn’t go far enough to bundle features into the email workflow. Eric Saund and his team of researchers at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) are looking to get images into more Office application workflows. They started with computer vision research and applied to document authoring tools to create WYPIWYG  (What You Perceive is What You Get) to interpret salient objects in common with what the user perceives, which allows tap-selection of meaningful objects in the scene. They would like to offer for all devices a bundled email service that includes uninhibited sketching, text, graphics, rich layout, and document markup in an email authoring tool.

“An email message is no longer a string of characters, it’s a canvas that hosts mixed content and AI-driven authoring support,” Saund says. “‘Visual email’ should include lightweight feedback on documents and slides, design collaboration, engineering discussion, and sales conversations.”

Deleting metaphors 

Quip, billed the  “Word for the mobile generation,” claims to drastically reduce if not remove email from the workplace. I spoke with Quip’s head of Business Operations Molly Graham who only has an email address to communicate with people outside of her company. Quip’s take on mobile-first design is to tether each document to a messaging stream, so that you can talk about the document without attaching versions of documents to email. This goes a step further than track changes in Microsoft Word and Gtalk comments in Google docs, where in Quip the interface looks more like Facebook Messenger than just margin notes.

Graham laughed as she showed there’s no need for a ‘spinner’ in Quip because documents are accessed instantly. This is called “collaborative syncing,” she says, and it is how Quip gets rid of “files” and versioning within the app, which still exists in Evernote as notes need to be reconciled as they are separate versions.

“We think intermingling features is essential on mobile,” she adds. “There are two main things that people tell us about Quip that they love. First, integrating communication and messaging with content, and not having to switch to email to be able to talk to people about the document. The second thing they love is the integration of a checklist and a table into a document.”

For Quip to maintain a lightweight user experience, it does have to let go of some control. Quip attempts to deliver easy formatting to serve the 80 percent of users who had used Excel for things like bachelor party RSVP lists, rather than financial models. At this stage Quip is there to help handle most of the document creation process, but is not looking to own that last mile of margin tweaking and print formatting.

“We expect users to write in Quip and then format after they export back to Microsoft Word,” Graham says. “Our product is the best for that one paragraph that in a long document that 90 people have an opinion on and need to mark up.”

What about Excel and PowerPoint? 

Excel and PowerPoint are traditionally products that are seen as impossible to improve upon, but are spoken of in the same breath as old and outdated. They may not really be ready to get a mobile phone makeover, but iPad apps abound. Two startups in particular that are working out of Valuestream Labs, a FinTech accelerator in NYC, are focusing on the Office 1 percent problems.

It is understood in the term “death by PowerPoint” that there’s a challenge when most MBAs, consultants and finance people who are not designers try to arrange information for public consumption, and this was recently illustrated by a designer trying to lend Mary Meeker a hand in cleaning up her yearly opus.

Pellucid Analytics takes a different strategy to rebuilding PowerPoint. Instead of looking at PowerPoint as a design tool, Pellucid fixes the design and enables archive search for thousands of financial accounting slide templates that an analyst would need to fill a pitch book such as ROE, EBITDA and other fun acronyms. Since the formatting is already set, analysts can just enter company names and based on the data sources that the bank they work for has licensed, Pellucid can fill in any of that data automatically and keep it up to date.

However, the concept of live data in presentations is a shock to most bankers, so Adrian Crockett of Pellucid admits that it’s one of the first things he has to explain to new users. Of course, Pellucid offers the ability to snapshot data for use in later presentations. But Adrian stressed that in addition to Pellucid’s approach to removing grunt work for analysts, it is giving senior bankers access to live data right in the presentation that would normally require VPN access, logins, app switching and all other sorts of headaches to be able to access, especially on tablets.

Of all the Office products, Excel is likely the toughest beast to slay. Dean Zarras’s ClearFactr stops short of mobile, but it is worth including as a cloud-based product that wants to improve upon Excel by making it a communication tool.  Zarras feels Excel is not a communication tool because it is too easy to botch the communication of your idea when $F12 cell symbolism gets in the way, which is why ClearFactr toggles those cell references with a description in English of what’s happening in each cell.

Whether you are in a bank, big corporate or even a small business, there is a tendency to have one person build a spreadsheet and only that person understands it. The big question most people have is, how much effort does a startup have to put in until there’s a value over just using Excel? Zarras says that when collaboration through natural language, version control and advanced auditing tools can let a user evaluate time-series data, and limit ‘spreadsheet risk’, then there is a value over Excel. (Spreadsheet risk may sound like a joke, but it’s the excuse that BoA leaned on when it restated 4 billion in earnings and in the EU there’s even an organization to clarify best practices called the European Society of Spreadsheeting.)

I’m not saying you should start thinking of your MacBook as only an expensive suntanning reflector, and you may be thinking that running your business from your mobile phone would be a nightmare.  But wouldn’t it be nice to just finish your work right on your phone?