Analysis: Do enterprises want Microsoft Office on tablet computers?

By Stuart Sumner
20 Feb 2012 View Comments
Man holding a tablet

Microsoft announced earlier this month that its Office suite of applications will be available on ARM-based tablet devices this year.

But is this what enterprises want, or do tablets need to see greater enterprise-level penetration? And what does Microsoft need to do to ensure its success?

Further reading

Tony Cripps, principal analyst at Ovum, said that Microsoft will have an easier job convincing businesses to invest in tablet variants of Office due to its easy integration with other applications.

"There are lots of factors to take into account when you introduce new devices or software into the corporate environment," he explained.

"One is how they will integrate with core business applications. But the Office suite is already one of those core applications, so they're over that hurdle."

He sees further encouragement for Microsoft in the fact that Office is already a well-understood and widely used suite of applications.

This will help IT departments looking to expand their use of tablet devices, as user training and support costs will be lower.

However, while Office is familiar to a large proportion of the business community, the version that Microsoft is set to release on tablet devices won't be identical to the one many of us run on our desktops.

"The ARM chip architecture is a reduced instruction set [compared to the desktop], so not every function that you can see on an Office application running on the desktop or an x86-based chipset will be there," said Cripps.

"The applications will need a considerable amount of rewriting, and Microsoft may have to make compromises."

So the tablet version of Office will not be able to do everything we expect it to do now on the desktop. In Cripps' opinion, this could be a problem for some applications.

"PowerPoint and Excel users will need full functionality for them to be of any use," he said.

There is little value in creating a presentation on a tablet if a far better and more feature-rich presentation could be made on the desktop.

Excel users are also unlikely to migrate away from their desktops if they're unable to create the formulae and pivot tables they need on another device.

However, Microsoft said in a blog post about upcoming Windows features on the ARM-based tablet – or Windows On Arm (WOA), as it calls it – that Office products will be "fully-featured".

"These new Office applications, codenamed Office 15, have been significantly architected for both touch and minimised power/resource consumption, while also being fully-featured for consumers and providing complete document compatibility," wrote Steven Sinofsky, Microsoft president of the Windows division.

Microsoft's point about document compatibility is a potential strength, according to Cripps.

"If it is to be successful, Office 15 needs to offer seamless interoperability between different versions," he claimed. "A document you create on the desktop must maintain its integrity and formatting when you transfer it to the tablet, and vice versa."

If Microsoft does provide full Office features and complete compatibility, which most likely refers to cross-platform compatibility, Cripps thinks the product is likely to be successful and encourage a wider enterprise take-up of ARM-based tablets.

But not everyone is convinced. Information Systems Consultant Chris Puttick conceded that Office 15 is likely to be popular, but said that enterprises are not looking closely enough at potentially cheaper alternatives. The Microsoft licensing fees add to the base cost.

"Yes, having Microsoft Office on a tablet, which is file format-compatible with the desktop versions, will be popular with firms committed to a tablet user device strategy, and are locked into the Microsoft Office stack," said Puttick.

"But enterprises in that situation are not competitive. Their cost base is high [due to licensing fees] for no quantifiable gain. If your competition has lower costs for the delivery of the same product or service, you will eventually lose."

Puttick cites Google Documents, Zimbra, LibreOffice and IBM Documents as current or upcoming competitors. The first three are open-source or free to use, which could make them popular with public sector organisations given the government's stated commitment to exploring open-source software where available.

Puttick concluded that businesses should look to move away from both Office and its competitors, claiming that the often complicated output is inefficient.

"Stop making overly complex documents – nobody is impressed," he said.

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