On walkabout in life and technology

The Diminishing Relevance of MS Office

It used to be a given that we purchased our computers to run MS Office, because that’s all the software we used on our computers. But over the years, we started to use our computing devices for more than work and the use and need for MS Office has declined in importance.

We still regularly need to use MS Office file formats to share documents, but lots of software happily reads and writes these formats. And these days, people are purchasing tablets and mobile computing devices in droves that do not and can not run MS Office and they don’t seem to care about it.

I think that MS Office is no longer as relevant in our computing purchase or use decisions because we use computers differently now and there are other ways to share documents.

In this post, I present my view on the rise and fall of MS Office, based on my use of this product suite over the years. And I’ve been using it since the beginning.

Introducing Computers into the Office

Back in the 1980’s, products like VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet, and WordStar, followed by WordPerfect, were the killer apps that introduced personal computers into the workplace. These were the predecessors to MS Office. Our Apple II’s or later Intel 8086 based IBM clones ran them happily in our DOS boxes, and many UNIX-heads like me purchased PC’s to gain access to these amazing tools.

Before these products came out, personal computers were really only for hobbyists or researchers and programmers in labs. But the ease of use and programmability of VisiCalc and the benefits of Word Processing over typewriters were immediately apparent, leading to the rise of computers and printers in the workplace.

In the late 1980’s, VisiCalc had stumbled and the shiny and very powerful Lotus 123 became the first de facto standard for business documents. And when we hit the end of the 1980’s, a new MS Word for DOS program from Microsoft was starting to compete with WordPerfect for mind share. I wrote my university thesis using MS Word for DOS and used Lotus 123 for tables of numbers and graphs.

Computers were for Working

As the 1990’s ramped up, so did the use of computers in the workplace. More and more people were using PC’s for Spreadsheeting and Word Processing. Lotus 123 and WordPerfect skills were becoming necessary on résumés.

Microsoft started the decade by bundling their Word Processor, Spreadsheet and Presentation tool in one, called it MS Office and dropped the price drastically. It took several years for the cheaper, plucky MS Office to replace the aging Lotus 123 and WordPerfect as de facto standards, but by the middle of the decade, we were all using MS Office at work. This pretty much coincided with the majority move from text-based DOS to GUI Windows, and the failure of both Lotus 123 and WordPerfect to make the jump in time. I was running Word and Excel on the Mac at the time at home, and on Windows at work (and moving files between the two on floppy disks and later Zip drives).

The most common use of personal computing during the 1980s and 1990s was at work, and MS Office was the market leader. Your company purchased computers to run MS Office. And you did little else on these computers except run MS Office and print the results out. It was a boom time for MS Office, Windows and corporate desktop computing.

But the seeds for change were busy being planted. On the fringes of corporate computing were people using Adobe products for creative design and desktop publishing. I started using Illustrator and PageMaker in 1993. And on the other end of the scale, the rise of modems and CompuServe and Bulletin Boards were laying the seeds for using computers for communication, messaging and sharing. And Corporate IT shops were starting to write their own software to replace spreadsheets to run the business.

By the time we hit the end of the 1990’s, we pretty much all had email too. And MS Office had grown to include Outlook to help us manage it. At work, instead of printing the MS Office documents we spent all day creating and modifying, we emailed them back and forth.

MS Office was still the number one necessary product on personal computers. It was the “Golden Age” of MS Office.

Making the Computer Personal Again

In the 1990’s, we were still working on computers and playing elsewhere. That all changed in the naughts. Maybe it was Apple’s iLife, maybe it was the Internet, maybe it was digital photography, maybe it was Napster and MP3’s, or maybe its because we just had computers at home, but we suddenly started using computers for more than boring old work.

We started to use email for personal communication, no longer a business function. We started to store our photos and music on our computers. We started to create our own art, menus, newsletters and invitations and consume other media on our computers. We started to do research, and play games, and browse, and we gave computers to our grandparents to maintain communication with them.

I think by the middle of the naughts, people were no longer buying computers primarily for work anymore, even though the Corporates were still buying Dells and MS Office by the billions. Computers were becoming mainstream at home for email and web, and used at work to run other corporate software which was becoming more popular. Sure, we worker drones still spent most of our days in Word, Excel or Powerpoint, but more and more of our time was being spent outside this core suite in web applications and email. We had all started to use other software a lot more, and MS Office a little less.

The rise of email, and the Blackberry revolution that kicked off the smartphone revolution, further depressed the primacy of MS Office as the must-have software. There was no Word, Excel or Powerpoint on a Blackberry, yet we still loved these devices, and you could still view MS Office files if you needed to. It was no longer a must-have, the primary need on a computing device had changed from MS Office to email.

The Computer as a Communications Device

And nowadays, our use of computers has further strayed from work and the need for MS Office. Our computing devices have become our communication devices, whether they be smart phones, tablets or laptops. We all spend a lot more time on the web, sharing and communication using IM, Skype, Facebook and Twitter, and search, browse and shop on the web too. We buy computers these days for portability and wireless access to the web services we rely on, not spreadsheeting. And there are so many useful alternatives to MS Office that we no longer treat running MS Office as a requirement. Just look at the sales of iPhones and iPads and Android tablets, no MS Office, and no need for it.

Many of us, myself included, rarely if ever use a Word Processor or a Spreadsheet anymore. We email instead of writing letters, rarely print anything, and run our emails on multiple devices using different email software instead of Outlook. We use Soulver and online spreadsheets and custom software instead of Excel for everything numerical. We create web sites and wikis and blog posts instead of Word documents. We snark at people who use Comic Sans in Powerpoint decks, while using Futura in Keynote, or Ubuntu Sans in PDF presentation decks.

If I did not have clients that needed me to program these tools, I would not have them installed (and did not for over a year).

MS Office is now the part, not the whole

It used to be that we did everything on our computers in MS Office tools. And most of us still need MS Office or tools like it to do our jobs. But for many of us, a growing number, we can and do easily replace MS Office with iWork or Google Docs or OpenOffice, or just use other stuff instead. Proof, I repeat, we’re buying devices that do not have it and do not seem to care.

In my case, for example, I write everything in Markdown and share documents on the web or as PDF files. On the once annual occasion that I need to share a document for review tracking, and need MS Word format, I launch Pages, a cheaper alternative that is more than compatible enough. I do all my work estimates and calculations in Soulver, invoices and time tracking in Billings, accounting in QuickBooks, and my data is in web databases; all of these things used to reside in Excel Spreadsheets. If I need to share data, I spit out JSON or CSV. I do presentations in Keynote which is a better Powerpoint and email using Gmail web or Mail.app. I no longer need Outlook for contacts and calendaring because that’s built into my operating systems now and synced in the cloud.

I may not be typical, but I am seeing more and more people doing the same. MS Office was magnificent in bringing the power of personal computing to people, but I think that we’re all moving beyond it now and are needing and using other stuff more.

It is just not as relevant as it used to be.

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