Back on top: Microsoft owns the modern office again

By (mostly) giving up its Windows-only ambitions and moving off web apps, Microsoft has made Office 365 the king of the productivity hill once more

Back on top: Microsoft owns the modern office again

Microsoft is back at the core of the office -- and, more important, at the core of the new office. A few years ago, Microsoft was flailing, with Windows 8 a disaster, Windows Phone going nowhere fast, its cloud strategy disjointed and primitively executed, and both Exchange and Microsoft Office stuck in a rut.

No longer. Today, Microsoft Office and the related Microsoft ecosystem -- Exchange, SharePoint, OneDrive, and the rest of Office 365 -- is again an energized core for modern businesses. By modern, I mean multiplatform.

It's clear that Microsoft is refocusing away from Windows (Windows 10 is good but no longer the center of the universe) to Office, and that shift in the last year has moved from talk to action.

You see the action at many levels:

There's still a lot of work to be done -- and Microsoft needs to decide whether to kill Yammer or give it the serious attention it needs to be as good as Slack. But for the first time ever, Microsoft Office is a platform you can use across multiple devices -- and will want to use.

For businesses, that's a big sigh of relief. Microsoft's long-standing approach of favoring Windows while punishing others platforms was fine before the iPhone, but it's boomeranged since then. PC sales continue to fall, Mac sales continue to rise, and practically everyone in larger businesses has an iPhone if not an iPad.

IT today can have the common, standard platform (Office 365) it wants in a heterogeneous, increasingly mobile and BYOD world that users want. The web was supposed to be the center that replaced the PC, but instead it's the cloud suite (Office 365, in this case).

Under Microsoft's previous trajectory, Google Apps was becoming a real option for IT, since it works (poorly) on any computer via a browser and via native mobile apps. Despite its subpar productivity capabilities, Google Apps has mastered document sharing, and many people were willing to give up powerful editing for the ability to work wherever whenever.

Now, you don't have to make that choice, even if Office 365 document sharing remains more complex than it should be.

Nor do you have to use Apple's iWork suite on iOS, which was the only rational approach 18 months ago. Office is strong on iOS and on MacOS, where iWork has long been available as a backup for the day Mac Office users couldn't take it anymore. That day has been pushed far forward and perhaps may never come.

Apple's web strategy for iWork on Windows and Android has essentially shut it out of any large multiplatform environment -- especially as Apple reduced the native app functionality in 2013 to make the web and native apps equivalently functional. As with Google Apps' web centrism, that resulted in a crippled suite. Although Apple brought back some native features a year later, the momentum for iWork has already ended. 

In fact, Microsoft's decision to move from web centrism to app centrism has paid off. A few years ago, native apps were a bad thing, and the future was the web app. Except it wasn't: Web apps can't do as much, and they work terribly in multi-app contexts, which described most professional work. Using a web app today is like going back to a singe-tasking app in 1995 -- you do it only if you have no choice, because being able to switch among apps and share common file systems and so forth is too compelling to give up.

But back in the day, Microsoft followed Google's lead to the web app, resulting in the horrible Office Online. (Apple followed later with iWork, which has yet to recover.) Microsoft has since reversed course, putting native apps front and center again, with all the power and convenience they bring.

Yet Microsoft has not abandoned the web app: For most Office 365 applications, you can use the web version or the native version. The web versions are good enough for quick or isolated work, handy when you're not at your computer or don't want to fire up the app for a small change. If you want to have simultaneous editing, web apps are the way to go. Native apps are great for doing big-screen, multiwindow work or for complex documents.

As a result of Microsoft's "both" approach, you get the convenience of Google Apps without the capability penalties of Google Apps. Apple's iWork ostensibly offers the same duality, but Apple's lack of investment in iWork for several years, coupled with its decision to limit native apps to MacOS and iOS, has essentially turned iWork into a free, simple suite for home users who don't want to pay for Office.

To put it another way, with Office 365 you get the best of the native app and the cloud on most every device. Well, not the best quite yet -- there are plenty of issues in Office 365 that Microsoft must address, from artificial limits on Mac users, an Exchange messaging back end that still needs to be reinvented to use common APIs across all clients, and web-centric functionality in OneDrive and SharePoint that need to move to the native clients.

Still, Microsoft clearly has the best office platform for the modern office. There really are no alternatives to consider, even if there are point products that are better for some aspects like instant messaging. I wouldn't have believed 18 months ago that I would be writing these words, but it's the truth.

If Microsoft finishes the job, it will have successfully replaced Bill Gates' famous "Windows on every desk" ambition with the even bigger "Office 365 on every device" ambition, certainly for business users. If Microsoft pulls that off, sustains its current efforts, and maintains the results over time, I'll gladly join in. I bet you will too.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.