Office Web Apps: The beginning of the end for Microsoft?

How Microsoft's half-hearted embrace of cloud computing has signaled the start of an inexorable slide into obsolescence

Fish or cut bait. As adages go, this universal exhortation to overcome indecisiveness and commit to a specific course of action is just as applicable to software strategy as it is casual angling. The history of the IT industry is rife with examples of market-defining companies (Lotus, WordPerfect, Borland International) that ultimately failed because they refused to invest fully in paradigm-shifting changes in how people use and interact with computers.

Now, the author of the very change (Windows) that killed off these software dinosaurs is itself bumbling toward extinction. Microsoft is facing its own paradigm-shifting moment in the emergence of the Google-dominated cloud. And like so many others before it, the company seems neither to understand the nature of the threat nor to appreciate the danger such change poses to its very existence.

[ InfoWorld Test Center's first look: Does Office Web Apps have what it takes to take on Google? | Get the scoop on the new Office 2010 in our first look review. ]

I cite as evidence Microsoft's lame-duck Office Web Applications. A kludge solution at best, OWA tries to straddle the gaping chasm between the ethereal cloud and its earthbound forebears by providing some very limited Office functionality in a browser. And though this hacked-together amalgamation of CSS, AJAX, and clever formatting tricks may resemble Office in some superficial way, it is clearly intended as a stop-gap measure, a way for the company to respond to the popular Google Apps platform without actually embracing the underlying cloud computing paradigm.

After all, Microsoft executives have made it clear that they view OWA, with its crippled feature set and half-baked sharing support, to be a complementary solution for users of its traditional "fat client" products down here on terra firma. And it's this inherent dismissal of cloud computing as a mere fad, akin to the so-called push technologies in the late 1990s, that will ultimately bring down the Redmond beast.

IT folks are a surly lot. We suffer neither fools nor charlatans gladly. So when Microsoft makes noise about embracing the cloud, then delivers something designed to preserve the status quo, we feel compelled to call them on it. OWA is not the capable, feature-complete Web implementation the company led us to believe it was developing. Rather, it's a poor attempt at placating its critics (not to mention its grumpy shareholders) by paying lip service to cloud computing ideals and principles while at the same time trying to co-opt the new as a means to prop up the old.

Frankly, it didn't have to be this way. Microsoft has both the datacenter capacity and the technical prowess to deliver a fully functional, hosted Office solution today. If it wanted to, it could blow Google Apps out of the water with one well-placed salvo of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, running free, functional, and unfettered in a Web browser. And though such a solution would undoubtedly eat into the company's Office revenues in the short term, it would also pay huge dividends down the road once the Google threat has been vanquished and Microsoft's hegemony reaffirmed.

Instead, the company has chosen the path of slow obsolescence, clinging to a myopic, PC-centric worldview that is out of touch with an increasingly mobile, device-independent user base. It's an old story. Just as WordPerfect lost its way and arrived late to the GUI party with a bloated, buggy Windows version of its flagship word processing package, Office Web Applications may prove to be the shortsighted boondoggle that signals the beginning of Microsoft's inexorable decline.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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