Why Microsoft Shouldn't Focus Only on Windows

How about an "Office Everywhere" initiative?

Years ago, Microsoft had an internal mantra called "NT everywhere." The idea was that the company would get its NT codebase into as many markets as possible, including of course client and server computing. That slogan changed to "Windows everywhere" as NT consumed Microsoft's core product line. And then this past week, famously, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer uttered an interesting take on the line, telling shareholders that Windows was it for Microsoft, the be-all and end-all and the reason the company exists.

The point was delivered enthusiastically and was well-intentioned. But I'm pretty sure it's the wrong strategy. And the reason is simple: Although Windows is still a key money-maker for Microsoft and the basis for its fabulous wealth, it's only one of a few important product lines at the company. And I'd like to see the software giant focus as much effort and emphasis on these other products as it does on Windows, and afford them the same influence within the company. How about "Office everywhere," for example?

Ballmer's comments came during the interesting Q&A portion of last week's annual meeting of shareholders, which Microsoft held in Bellevue, Washington, near its corporate headquarters. A shareholder asked the CEO whether we were in a "post-PC" world. Ballmer's answer went well beyond the alternative "PC-plus era" theory that the company's other representatives have offered up in recent months.

"We are in the Windows era," he said. "We were, we are, and we always will be. That's kind of what we get paid to do. We've got broad Windows initiatives driving Windows down to the phone. With Windows 8, you'll see incredible new form factors powered by Windows from tablets, small, large, pens, smaller, bigger, room-sized displays. We are in an era in which the range of smart devices is continuing to expand. That's a fantastic thing for Microsoft. That is a real opportunity. That's an opportunity that we will pursue by leveraging and sharing and driving Windows in new ways."

"One of the remarkable things about Windows and the PC over the years is it has adapted," he continued. "The PC was a programming machine, and then it became a spreadsheet machine, and a word processing machine and an e-mail machine and a music machine and an Internet machine, and, through the power of Windows, it will be a tablet machine and a reading machine and a note-taking machine. So, we very much continue to be in a Windows era, and we have to push with great innovation and with great agility; we're going to have to push Windows into more and more form factors, and we've got a lot of great competition who will push other solutions. But at the end of the day, we see great opportunity for the next decade to be a decade of great growth and a continuation of the Windows era."

Ballmer's comments are explicit and obvious -- the company sees Windows 8 as a product that can advance the PC but also compete with simpler computing devices such as the iPad -- but also betray an interesting internal politics to which most outsiders aren't privy, which is that Ballmer has a lot riding on Windows 8. And he's put all his eggs in the basket of Steven Sinofsky, the man most directly in charge of delivering on that next Windows version.

Sinofsky is the right guy to make Windows 8 happen, no doubt about it. But by emphasizing Windows so strongly -- by overemphasizing it, perhaps -- Ballmer and Microsoft are also giving some of Microsoft's other products a bit less attention than they deserve. You might recall that in last week's editorial, "Windows 8 Failure Could Set Off Tech Industry Chain Reaction," I openly wondered about the ramifications of Windows 8 falling short in the market. But Microsoft could very easily avert disaster, even if Windows 8 fails, if it simply gave other prominent products the open reign they deserve.

Office is an obvious choice, and if you're looking for hard, cold numbers, I'd point out that the Microsoft Business Division that's responsible for Office has been outperforming the Windows Division for some time now. In the most recent quarter, this division accounted for $5.62 billion in revenues, an 8-percent year-over-year increase. The Windows Division came in at $4.87 billion, with just a 2-percent increase.

So what would an unfettered Office look like?

Microsoft is already attacking the cloud nicely with Office 365 and Office Web Apps, but I can't help but think that the latter would have been more aggressively updated with features and functionality that put it more on par with the native Windows versions of the software. In a Microsoft-centric world, you build Office for Windows (and, for competitive reasons, for the Mac). But in the real world, you'd target HTML5 and the web.

You'd also target other popular computing platforms -- primarily iOS/iPad but also iOS/iPhone and Android for both smartphones and tablets. You'd make sure that Office ran as well as possible on all of these platforms, and not just a single app but as many Office apps as possible. You'd speak openly about how the computing world was changing and that for a large percentage of customers, just having an A-1 product on Windows PCs wasn't enough.

That's what Office everywhere would look like. Literally, Office. Everywhere.

There's some historical justification for this approach as well. Although Microsoft has, again, seen great success with Windows over the past 20 years, the company in many ways stumbled into this market by mistake and it tried at various times -- with both IBM and Apple, as it turns out -- to cede control of the OS market so it could focus on applications software. But even before Windows came to power, Microsoft's applications were a strong business, and were in fact the central core of its business in the days between its start as a niche maker of programming languages and its latter years as a platforms maker.

The reason Microsoft can't adopt an Office everywhere approach is that such an approach gets in the way of the company's current goal of continuing the Windows era. If Microsoft makes a version of Office for other platforms, especially one that's on par with the Windows offerings, that could lead to a further erosion of its Windows PC business. But this is exactly the kind of thinking that prevents Office from growing beyond the Microsoft safety net. And it ignores the fact that consumers and businesses are moving in ever-greater numbers to alternative computing platforms. This year, for the first time, more people will buy smartphones than PCs. It's time to wake up.

I like the way Steve Ballmer aggressively backs Windows. But I want to see him as aggressively back Office and Microsoft's other key products. Windows isn't Microsoft's only important product, and Mr. Ballmer shouldn't pretend that the company's success hinges solely on this platform. I say let them fight. And let the best products win.
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