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What Keeps Microsoft Office Strong is Incompetence

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 12, 2008

There, do I have your attention with that headline?  And how the heck can incompetence make a product strong?  No doubt you’re assuming I mean Microsoft’s incompetence, but it’s quite the opposite.  I am referring to the myriad competitors to Microsoft Office.

I got started on this rant after reading Larry Dignan’s rehash of a Bernstein report on Cloud Computing (executive summary: lots of buzz but it won’t have that big an impact, they’re wrong, but that’s the subject of another rant another time).

Getting back to the subject of incompetence, that is perhaps too harsh a word, but what’s wrong here, the reason cloud versions of the Office products are not getting uptake, is tragically avoidable.  I agree 100% with Bernstein’s analysis of what that problem is:

While Google Apps and Open Office from Sun have almost all of the functionality of Microsoft’s Office the conversion of documents is still not 100% effective, although Open Office comes very close indeed.  In a recent test Open Office could easily open a Word version of one of our published notes with formatting that was over 98% accurate.  Open Office could similarly open one of our financial models written in Excel – over 3Mb, and using a variety of Microsoft functions with iterative calculation.  Once again the document opened almost perfectly but a minor change was needed to ensure the model converged properly.  Google Docs did less well and could not handle the Excel model but opened our Word note and preserved about 90% of the formatting. Even though these programs are very nearly comparable in functionality and can offer additional functionality in terms of allowing users to simultaneously edit documents – which the client versions of Word and Excel cannot do – we still perceive considerable reluctance on the part of users and IT Departments to use them. 

The mystery to me is why these vendors can’t get compatibility with MS Office right.  There has to be some form of incompetence there, because it just isn’t that hard.

Let me explain.  I was a General in the Office Wars of the 80’s and 90’s.  I was responsible for Borland’s Quattro Pro.  It was 100% compatible not just with Excel, but before that with Lotus 1-2-3 during the DOS days when that product was King of the Hill.  None of the kinds of errors described for today’s MS Office competitors existed in our offering because I knew that any little hiccup trying ot use the original files would be the kiss of death.  As a matter of fact, on the predecessor to Quattro Pro, a product called Surpass, I personally did all the file compatibility work with Lotus 1-2-3.  It took me 4-6 months as I recall, and this while I was CEO of the company and working on a lot of other things.

Borland also had a Windows Word Processor that was MS Word compatible.   Unfortunately, we never got it shipped for various historical reasons (largely profitability issues made us fight over whether to spend the money, my argument was a single app can’t beat a suite no matter how good it is, the rest is history), but we were compatible there too.  And of course we were compatible in the database market, having shipped software that was compatible with dBase.

We were by no means the only software at that time to achieve that level of compatibility.  It is a mystery to me why the industry seems to have lost the capacity to think and execute in those terms.  It is no harder today than it was then.  The Quattro Pro product was built start to finish with just 10 developers in about 18 months.  I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be straightforward to do it again from scratch with a very similar budget.  That’s certainly within the reach of Google and others who want Office-killers.  Yet they don’t get it done.

Outlook is even more vulnerable than Office, yet there is no good synchronization software available for the non-email functions of Outlook.  Lest you send me a flurry of comments about one solution or another, be aware I’ve tried a whole bunch already.  Google’s version failed utterly.  My best result was with Plaxo, but it ultimately destroyed my calendar and contacts so I turned it off again.

The thing Bernstein, Microsoft, and these would be Cloud Upstarts have to keep in mind is that until this problem is fixed, Microsoft will keep dominating.  But it isn’t that hard to fix, and once fixed the friction preventing a switch goes down radically.  Heck, Microsoft can’t even get good uptake on Office 2007 if I look at the number of people that can’t read my files because they have the older version of Office.  Cloud Vendors, let me know if you need some names from my original Quattro Pro team.  They’re still around, still brilliant, and still able to build a product that’s 100% compatible and will get you where you want to go.

Can we get on with it?

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17 Responses to “What Keeps Microsoft Office Strong is Incompetence”

  1. bsweat said

    While I totally agree that we should “get on with it”, it really is “that hard” :)

    I strongly encourage you to read Joel Spolsky’s excellent article explaining the problem.

  2. weruiyrqwir said

    Please read article by one of the authors of MS Excel:

  3. smoothspan said

    Yep, guys, I read the article from Joel when it came out.

    Remember, I’m someone who has done this too. BTW, we had to do file compatibility before documentation like he describes was even available. And we still got it done, and it was still so compatible that problems just didn’t exist. And we weren’t the only ones. The Excel guys crossed the same bridge with 1-2-3 compatibility and Joel refers to that in his article. There were others. It can be done. It does not take a big team or a lot of time to do it. Certainly nothing the Googles of the world can’t handle.

    The problem is not how hard it is. The problem is that compatibility is black and white. You are not “almost compatible” or “pretty good”. First time someone loads up an MS Office file in your software and they get surprised you just destroyed all of their trust in you. You can’t afford that, particularly not for business applications.

    Maybe the answer is that the web world thinks of this the way they think of browser incompatibilities. Namely, that people will deal with a little fudging here or there because that’s just how it is. But that isn’t the case here. People working on these kinds of apps have to get religion and join the black and white world that says you are compatible or you are not. Even the browser incompatibilities drive developers nuts. Regular folk just won’t deal with it. They’ll stand pat with Office.

  4. […] to be harsh, but when is Google going to get over producing software as a hobby?  These are real tools that people expect to work right.  Presumably Google wants broad adoption […]

  5. […] office productivity legend Bob Warfield posted about it over on his blog […]

  6. […] then, a few others have briefly voiced their opinion on the report, largely disagreeing with the “move along, there’s nothing to see […]

  7. Shyam Kumar said

    Nice post.

    One offering of the Microsoft Office Suite that is generally left out of these discussions is Microsoft Project. And this is a product that controls 80% of its market.

    Inspite of the numerous web based project management offerings, not a single one attempted to integrate seamlessly with MS Project.

    When we, at Deskera, set out to do that, we did face some difficulties. And as you said, either you are compatible or you are not. There’s no ‘almost’.

    We’ve worked around those hurdles and I can say that we are 100% compatible now.
    You can read about our journey and the product at

  8. […] people really don’t understand how to do copies well.  They leave things out.  They assume things may not be important to copy.  They think things […]

  9. […] then, a few others have briefly voiced their opinion on the report, largely disagreeing with the “move along, there’s nothing to see […]

  10. […] be fighting from their competitive strength.  They own the Office market.  Wannabes have so far failed to even match Office functionality, have many serious incompatibilities (leading to adoption barriers), and have failed to introduce much in the way of innovations short of […]

  11. […] for the Apps business that there are only 2 kinds of compatibility with Microsoft Office–100% Compatible and Not Compatible.  Guess which one Google Apps […]

  12. […] Office?  It isn’t that hard to do, but you haven’t done it.  I wrote about it way back in 2008, and it still isn’t done.  It isn’t like Office is even that much a moving target, yet […]

  13. […] What Keeps Microsoft Strong Is Incompetence by SmoothSpan Blog […]

  14. […] I’ve written about this problem before.  It isn’t that hard to build a product that’s 100% compatible with Microsoft Office.  It’s been done before by companies a lot less successful than Google and Microsoft moves so slowly it’s not like it is a moving target they’re shooting at.  The mystery to me is why Google doesn’t just buckle down and get it done. […]

  15. […] I’ve written about this problem before.  It isn’t that hard to build a product that’s 100% compatible with Microsoft Office.  It’s been done before by companies a lot less successful than Google and Microsoft moves so slowly it’s not like it is a moving target they’re shooting at.  The mystery to me is why Google doesn’t just buckle down and get it done. […]

  16. […] –  Interoperability:  This is Microsoft’s last bastion.  We buy Windows because so much that we depend on in terms of applications, data, and hardware needs Windows to function.  But this is not a particularly strong barrier.  It amazes to me that companies like Google haven’t worked harder to eliminate it. […]

  17. […] What Keeps Microsoft Strong Is Incompetence by SmoothSpan Blog […]

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