If the rumors are correct, Microsoft will be showing off a beta of Office 2012 (or “Office 15” for those of use who keep count) at CES 2012 in Las Vegas this coming January, and – here’s the real news – I actually give a whit. It’s been so long since I saw anything to like in an Office release that I had to resort to Wikipedia to remember what it was. (The winner was the adaptive menus feature of Office 2000; safe mode in Office XP was a close second.)
This time, however, Microsoft has an excellent opportunity in front of it: touch. If Microsoft’s big brains can figure out how to make its productivity applications truly touch-friendly, they will have earned a huge reward. This is a make-or-break release for the company, because with Windows 8 and its true tablet support on tap for 2012, Microsoft has a chance to head off Apple and that company’s iWork for iOS.But there’s far more at stake here, because it’s not just a user count or market share; it’s a matter of how we’re going to use mobile devices in the future. Let’s be honest with ourselves: mobile devices are more about consuming content than they are creating it. Although mobile versions of desktop apps are nothing new, invariably one winds up working with a limited feature set that pales in comparison with that of the desktop version. If Microsoft figures out how to make the Office applications touch-focused, it will have put the nail in the coffin of the desktop PC as we know it.
The problem Microsoft faces is that Office may wind up being a victim of the company’s stubborn dedication to backward compatibility. For everything I find annoying about the iWork for iOS apps, I’ll argue that Apple isolated the 10 percent of features that support 90 percent of users’ needs. Can Microsoft be similarly brutal with Office?