The Office challenge

Microsoft has just announced that Windows 8 will be available from October 26 and this week also released their preview edition of Office 2013, the product that underpins the company’s dominance of the business IT sector.

Every time a new version of Office hits the market businesses find dozens of little incompatibilities with older systems – or not so little in the case of their abandoning Word and Excel macros a few versions ago.

Because of these problems, most businesses are reluctant to jump onto new versions straight away. A rule of thumb in the IT sector is not to consider deploying a new Microsoft product until the first service pack is released.

More cynical souls suggest that every second Windows release is a dog – there is some truth to this as over the last 15 years the successful Windows 98 was superseded by the despised Windows ME, and the popular Windows XP which followed was replaced with the disastrous Microsoft Vista.

In many ways, Microsoft are still paying for the Vista misstep, as their market share and stock price have never recovered from the peaks they touched around the time of Vista’s release.

Critically for Microsoft, Vista’s failure broke the five-year upgrade cycle the PC industry had built their entire business model around and, today, many homes and businesses are happily using Windows XP systems that are nearly 10 years old.

Microsoft will be praying that Windows 8 won’t repeat the disasters of Vista and ME not just to protect their desktop dominance but also that a failure will doom their smartphone ambitions.

Windows 8’s big selling point is the software will work on all screens – desktop, laptop, smartphone and tablet computers – unlike Apple where OSX runs on desktop and laptop systems while iOS looks after tablets and phones.

The mobile sector has been one of the great problems for Microsoft as the company failed to execute with PDAs, tablet computers and smartphones for a decade until, eventually, Apple iOS and Google Android devices grabbed the market, leaving Windows a distant and increasingly irrelevant third.

Achieving a common platform means some major changes in the way Windows operates and Microsoft are taking a great risk in developing a system that works on all platforms and getting users to accept the necessary changes.

So the stakes are high for Microsoft and we can expect some serious marketing efforts to get us to upgrade from our happy Windows XP boxes running Office 2003.

Even if you aren’t intending to upgrade, you can be sure some of your customers will be and if you’ve implemented a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy in your business you’ll be finding staff and contractors showing up with Windows 8 devices.

So we’re going to have to deal with Windows 8 and Office 2013 towards the end of the year regardless of our own business plans.

Given the major changes in the new system it might be an idea to grab a cheap new computer and install the preview editions of Windows 8 and Office 2013 just to see what breaks.

If you have an IT department or a support company looking after your systems then they are probably across this already and are testing your systems right now. It’s time to ask them how your important Line of Business software handles the new systems.

With the release of Windows 8, the maturing of Google’s Android system and the ongoing Apple juggernaut, 2013 is going to be an interesting year for IT systems. Make sure your business is prepared for that excitement.

Paul Wallbank is one of Australia’s leading experts on how industries and societies are changing in this connected, globalised era. When he isn’t explaining technology issues, he helps businesses and community organisations find opportunities in the new economy.


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