Office XP: The Last Hurrah

Subscription or shrink-wrap? That's the question that Office suite buyers will be faced with in years to come.

Subscription or shrink-wrap? Thats the question that Office suite buyers will be faced with in years to come—and it may become as common a question as "Paper or plastic?" at the supermarket checkout. Its too bad that, at this point, you have to live in Australia to have that choice.

Microsoft officials have been talking much about the subscription model, in which users pay regular fees and get periodic upgrades, as the future of software. At the same time, Microsoft is trying to play the same tune one more time with its recent rollout of Office XP, which is available only as a shrink-wrap product in the United States.

If this were 1995 or 1997, we might be more excited about Office XP, the latest version of the desktop application suite. Corporate users might be more interested if they also were back in the days when power users were multiplying like rabbits, and the productivity gains of installing the latest and greatest word processor or spreadsheet were so obvious as to be beyond rationalization.

But that was then, and this is 2001, when the computing landscape is far different, far more mature—and far more uncertain. For many, the productivity gains brought by a few new features do not warrant the cost of the software, installation and training. IT is looking at more pressing needs such as network infrastructure, enterprise business software and storage. And if a lump-sum cost of conversion is to be contemplated, the option of Star Office on Linux is not beyond the pale.

To be sure, XP does offer its share of new features, mostly on the usability front. And the company has resisted introducing the kind of backward incompatibility that plagued the Office 95 and 97 editions. So XP should be useful, especially if it comes preloaded on a new machine.

But we thought Microsoft recognized the signs long ago that feature bloat and the upgrade treadmill would eventually be things of the past, first when the company shifted much of its development focus to the Web and then later when it turned those efforts toward Web services in the form of its .Net initiative.

A company that wants to be an enterprise technology provider and an architect of a universal Internet services platform should rise above the urge to squeeze one more round of old-fashioned packaged-software revenues out of the pockets of its most important prospective customers.

If the company truly believes in its .Net strategy and can deliver on it, then we expect Office XP, and Windows XP later this year, to be the last fully packaged software suites to come from Microsoft. Paper or plastic, subscription or shrink-wrap, or—yes, freeware—IT is ready for the choice now.