The Office Suite Wars

Long ago, in a galaxy far way, there was a battle of epic proportions fought. I'm not talking about the clone wars--I'll leave that one to George Lucas. This is a battle I actually played a front line role in called the Office Suite Wars. In fact, I was one of the generals for one of the combatants, so you can't exactly consider my opinion on these matters to be objective! In this case, I was Vice President of Engineering for Borland. We had a product called Quattro Pro, that was a spreadsheet. The other three contestants were Microsoft, Lotus, and Word Perfect. If you know enough about computers to be reading this web page, you probably know who won.

This whole episode was a valuable lesson for me as an entrepreneur and business man. The reason we lost was product related, but not related to Quattro Pro. Our spreadsheet (for that's what Quattro Pro was) regularly trounced all comers in reviews, and we had developed a number of worthwhile innovations over Excel, many of which Excel never has gotten. Customers who cared about best-of-breed picked Quattro Pro. This was an awesome period for customers, because there were many new innovations developed as part of the arms race that was the Office Suite Wars. At Borland, we introduced spreadsheet notebook tabs, and the whole right mouse button thing started here too, albeit in radically different form than you see in today's software. There were many other innovations. We were on a 12 month development cycle back before anyone had ever thought of Internet-style development.

Despite this great spectacle, with much sound and fury signifying significant progress for users, Microsoft had a huge strategic advantage. No, it was not some secret set of hooks built into their operating system. It was not some monopolists dark manipulations. It was the reason this whole conflict is called the Office Suite Wars, with emphasis on the word "suite". At Borland, we had a best-of-breed spreadsheet. Arguably, at Lotus they had a best of breed word processor in Ami Pro, but it wasn't as far ahead of MS Word as on the spreadsheet side, and Lotus 1-2-3 was so long in the tooth it needed a room at the old folk's home where it could drool in privacy. Word Perfect had the geriatric equivalent on the word processing side, although both companies were the market share leaders and had big followings. Borland, meanwhile, had no word processor at all.

Getting a word processor was a big quest of mine while I was at Borland, and one I'm sorry to say I failed at. I had two problems. First, it's a big project to develop a Microsoft Word competitor. That product is huge, and it would take a number of engineers a significant amount of time to get there. So there are some significant costs to be undertaken over a 2 year planning horizon at a time when the company was focused on a need for increased profitability. The second problem was that our VP of Sales was opposed to the idea. He did not feel we could successfully sell a word processor. So, we went through a series of manic fits were a Borland WP was on again and off again.

We visited Ami Pro before Lotus bought them, and the CEO offered us a chance to buy the company for $60M. This sounds like a small sum by today's standards, but back then it was a huge software acquisition. We believed that if we went away for a few months they would become more reasonable. Two weeks later Lotus announced it was buying the company for $60M. The CEO later told us he really preferred Borland, but was under non-disclosure. Mistake for us. We started up a team to build a word processor around some code acquired from the old NBI dedicated word processor folks. It was a good group, but we were never allowed to have a team as large as the one that build Quattro Pro, so it was going to take a very long time to get this thing up to MS Word feature levels.

The bottom line is we lost the war for want of a true Suite. There were abortive attempts at partnership with Word Perfect, but that was doomed unless one company acquired the other. Today, the non-Microsoft Office software is largely irrelevant even though Microsoft had the smallest share by most measures when they started. The biggest thing that happened post-Suite Wars was that Microsoft wound up having to pay Borland over $100 million dollars for patent licensing, and among those patents were things like notebook tabs now found in Excel.

What has happened since the Office Suite Wars?

The post Office Suite Wars period has been an interesting one almost for the lack of action that has accompanied it. The charge is often leveled that Microsoft doesn't innovate, they merely copy competitor's ideas. I don't think this is really fair, but what is true is that absent decent competition the Microsoft product line's pace of development slows dramatically. Let's step through each product and see what's new since the Office Suite Wars ended in the 1994 to 1996 timeframe. It was really over with well before then, say about 1992, but by this time frame effective competition to MS Office was no longer available. By this time the Borland and Word Perfect offerings were now under the foster care of Corel. I'm writing this in 2002, so this has been a good 5 to 8 years of time.

My stint as a general in the wars was only 5 years, and during that time we saw huge developments, not the least of which was the migration from DOS to Windows, a development burden Microsoft largely didn't have to bear, which casts an even harsher light on their ability to show tangible forward progress in MS Office. Typically, a Microsoft development cycle is 2 years, so we're looking at anywhere from 2 to 4 such cycles in this analysis. FWIW, we wrote Quattro Pro for Windows in a little more than 2 years starting with no code whatsoever, so Microsoft's ability to offer an incremental release in that time frame is no great shakes. In reality, they don't even manage to get one out every 2 years. For the period we're looking at there was Office 95, Office 98, Office 2000, and Office XP.

I'm only going to discuss developments pertaining to the Internet, MS Word, and MS Excel. I think these are representative, and regardless of how much innovation may have continued for the other products, and it wasn't much, these are the products impacting most users. BTW, a similar story can be written about how development of Internet Explorer slowed considerably with the demise of Netscape as an effective competitor, but in that case it hasn't been as profound.

Internet

Most of the new developments in MS Office have centered around Internet enablement. Everyone remembers the year when Microsoft proclaimed they were late the the Internet and then made surprisingly rapid progress. I think this is a clear demonstration that the problem in innovation isn't any lack of developmental capability. They can grind out the code. Rather, their system lacks a means of empowering product visionaries, or perhaps they just don't have any visionaries aside from Bill Gates himself.

Despite the fact that these developments happened very quickly, they are not of a very profound nature, and little has happened since to extend the vision. Basically, the various applications simply developed the ability to deal with HTML as a file and clipboard format. They made sure you could paste HTML into the apps and get a result that looked close to what was on the web page, and that you could save documents or clipboard contents in HTML format. We'll talk later about how while this was a good development, it was far too little and should have been much further developed.

Summary of Features by MS Office Release

MS Office (All Products)
MS Word
MS Excel
Office 95

Wizards

OLE

E-Mail integration

Binder

32-bit (i.e. compatible with Windows 95)

Spelling errors flagged as underlines.

Word completion

Fancier templates

Improved DB integration
Office 97

Aforementioned Internet functionality

Office Art: Drawing tools with shapes

Customizable toolbars

Office Assistant (Die Clippy!)

Outlook introduced

Improved Table Functionality

Document Map

Revision Marks

Natural language formula creation

Rotated text in cells

Ability to merge cells ala HTML tables

Ability to restrict cell contents using rules

Office 2000

Multiple item clipboard

Personalized Menus

End of MDI

HTML native file formats

Document recovery

Compare & Merge Revisions

Ability to post charts and spreadsheets as live web objects

Pivot tables and charts

Office XP

Smart Tags

Task Panes

Live Web Info in Documents

Voice recognition

Handwriting recognition

Optical character recognition

Group Review Workflow

More Document Search & Retrieval

Web Clip Art

Document recovery extended to all apps

XML support

Less aggressive automatic formatting?

?

Drag and drop web queries

Watch window and expression debugger

The formula here is pretty obvious. There are a bunch of core concepts focused on either usability or some other theme that are available across all apps. In other words, core technology. Then, each app adds a little bit of functionality. I have no idea how many people are involved in this work, but it has to be quite a few given the size of Microsoft's engineering group and the importance of Office. Nevertheless, these new updates are very lame. I find it hard to get motivated to upgrade to each new one, with my primary motivation being a fear of being left behind more than anything.

As we look back, how many of these innovations have even stood the test of time? For example, Clippy, the Office Assistant, is turned off by default in the new Office XP--Microsoft actually touts Clippy's death as a "feature" and reason to upgrade, by the way. Who is still using (or ever used) the Office Binder feature introduced in Office 95? It was a messy OLE hack that never worked well enough for anything but a demo. How many of you have ever had occasion to customize your toolbar versus just using what came with the product? Edward Mendelson, in his PC Magazine review of Office XP names its best new feature as, "the best may be the ease with which users can switch off the in-your-face automation features from the previous version." Huh? The best new feature is the ability to turn off the plethora of old features? That can't be taken as a compliment!

Wondering why there are question marks on the Word and Excel features for Office XP? It's because even Microsoft doesn't bother to list their new features for Windows XP. Apparently there was nothing there worthy of note. What few features I identified were not in Microsoft's literature, but in reviews, which also had precious little to say about application-specific features. What a pity, and doesn't this really make my point?

I recently heard from a recruiter that Jeff Raikes is looking to hire someone to "reinvigorate" Microsoft Office. Clearly it needs it. Upgrade sales have to be falling short of expectations, and eventually this will be a big problem for Microsoft. Let's talk now about what I'd do were I their product visionary.

What Should Be Done?

 
All material 2001-2006, Robert W. Warfield.