Microsoft Office is still the leading PC office suite of applications, but could its market share be about to shrink? Ian Osborne takes a look Office's position and the pretenders to its throne...

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When it comes to suites of office applications, such as word processors, spreadsheets, presentation programs and the like, Microsoft Office is the undisputed king of the hill. Indeed, along with Windows, it’s one of Microsoft’s key revenue streams. But with increased threats to its market from both new and old sources, and users questioning whether they need to upgrade to the latest version, could Office finally be dethroned?

Darren Strange, UK product manager for Microsoft Office, thinks not: "Microsoft Office 2007 is going very well," he says. "It’s beating the comparable curve for 2003 in the same number of months following their respective launches. Some people plan to upgrade Windows and Office together, but others are going ahead with upgrading to Office 2007 on Windows XP."

Duncan McAuley, purchasing director at VIP, is a little less upbeat: "The take-up of Office 2007, and the crossover to Office-Ready PCs, hasn’t happened as quickly as we anticipated. We have seen an improvement in the rate of adoption since Office 2003 became medialess, and we anticipate demand to grow further this year. However, there is still education to be done in the reseller channel with regards to media-free software licensing."

"Take-up of Office 2007 has been disappointing, although users that have migrated have been impressed with the extra features and benefits it brings," adds Jon Atherton, commercial group vice president at Entatech. "Perhaps the new delivery method via OEM and people’s tendency to buy and use what they know is a key factor. Now that the UK market has no official copies of 2003 in stock, we will see increased figures."

Much has been made about the threat to Office from the open-source, which offers a similar range of packages to MS Office and can be downloaded from the internet without charge. however, our panel are not impressed. "I’m only seeing this in the media," says Atherton. "I’m just not seeing it in the market. The numbers regarding OpenOffice adoption are so low the data struggles to be statistically relevant, and indicators are that usage of OpenOffice has actually dropped a bit since Office 2007 was released."

Duncan McAuley agrees: "At VIP we’re certainly not experiencing this trend. The office tools in the Microsoft suite out-perform its rivals and with such a well-established customer base, other suites will always struggle to compete. Microsoft’s office products still offer customers the best in terms of quality of user experience and compatibility with other products." As Jon Atherton points out: "The cost involved in retraining, as well as losing the familiarity of the Microsoft brand, is too a high a price to switch".

So if not, what is Microsoft Office’s biggest competitor? Jon Atherton isn’t impressed with any of them. "I’ve not seen any better alternatives; only poor attempts to compete against Office," he says. Strange agrees: "Our biggest competitor is always the previous release. Sales of Office 2007 are beating the equivalent post-launch curve of Office 2003, which indicates this is going well."

Microsoft is taking a keen interest in cloud computing, where office applications are offered as an online service, bought through subscription in addition to, or instead of, installing software on your hard drive. "We think the future is in software plus services," says Strange. "Software on your hard disk is enhanced by consuming innovative services, and services are made better when brought together by sophisticated software. We’re investing a great deal into cloud services that enhance the desktop. Look at Office Live or Groove as an example. This interface of software and services creates a diverse and fertile ground for partners to build terrific solutions for customers, and make a lot of money doing it as well."

McAuley reckons the cloud-computing model will take time to mature. "There’s a number of discussions in the channel at the moment about the feasibility and benefits of such a model, but in the short term at least, buying a package of software to install on a computer is still the preferred method. Whether that is still the case in five years time is yet to be seen."

Surely there comes a point at which office suites can develop no more? How can a package like Office possibly offer more than it does already? "Office suites are so rich in features that most users struggle to use even a small fraction of the functions available to them," says McAuley. "This leaves plenty of room for future development in terms of making features more accessible and user-friendly, as well as improving file-sharing and collaboration."

This seems to be what Microsoft is doing with Office. As Strange puts it, "We’ve made a good start with delivering on our vision for the New World of work, but there’s so much more we can do. As we look at convergence in many areas, we feel we are just at the beginning. We’re hard at work on Office ’14’ and beyond, and are excited about the benefits these will bring to customers."

Atherton suggests a new distribution model. "Perhaps the route will be similar to how antivirus companies currently ‘update’ their software, through downloads for free or a small fee."

And the future? "I believe Microsoft will remain dominant for the obvious reason that Office is so widely used in all aspects of business, education and home life", says Atherton. "I would expect to see customers looking for integration and convergence of technologies," says Strange. "The vision of the office system positions us strongly to deliver on that, bringing a blend of on-line services with people-oriented applications."

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