1. Microsoft’s design strategy: open formats, proprietary interface?

    Posted June 1, 2010 in software, strategy  |  1 Comment so far

    This might not be a very advisable disclosure to make, but I’ll make it anyway: I actually like Microsoft Office 2007.

    Liking Office 2007 is not really the done thing – lots of people in my line of work turn their noses up at Microsoft in general and Office in particular. And I’m no different. Last year I spent about six months attempting to move away from Windows to use Linux instead, but ended up returning to Windows. Why? Because, for me, OpenOffice was simply no match for Office 2007.

    The thing with OpenOffice is that it looks and feels a lot like Office 2003. If I was a heavy Office 2003 user, OpenOffice might have worked out because its user interface (UI) is fundamentally similar. But Office 2007 has a radically different UI, with none of the old “File / Edit / View” menu groupings.

    Office UI screenshots

    Office 2007 replaced the conventional menu structure with the "Office Ribbon"

    Lots of people were confused by the Office 2007 UI when it launched, myself included. Today, however, I see it as a big improvement. The new interface makes features more discoverable and more immediately accessible, and I get far more out of the software today than I ever did before.

    But why did Microsoft carry out this redesign, which must have been costly? After all, they had a monopoly in the office software market so could get away with being a bit conservative. And people don’t like it when familiar things change – just look at the protests that erupt whenever Facebook changes its layout – so the redesign must have looked pretty risky too. How did the Office 2007 team convince Microsoft to fund a design project that was risky, expensive and potentially pointless?

    Microsoft, like all companies, would like us to think that it does these things out of altruism, to make our jobs easier and lives happier. But that’s not how things work in the corporate world. Instead, I think there might be a slightly more crafty and devious strategy at work here.

    Imagine you’re Microsoft. Your monopolistic behaviour during the browser wars of the 1990s cost you over $2 billion and led to you being forced to promote your competitors. The last thing you need is for something similar to happen to your Office package, your most lucrative product line after Windows.

    Being proactive, you wonder what line of attack the courts would take if they came for Office, and it hits you – proprietary file formats. Documents created in Microsoft Office can’t be opened by other packages because the files aren’t compatible, which inhibits competition and annoys the hell out of the open source community. So you decide to phase them out. You’ll set your file formats free, and will even start supporting open source file formats. This way you’re far less likely to be accused of monopolistic behaviour.

    But there’s a problem here. What if, by trying to look less like a monopoly, people move to OpenOffice and you actually become less like a monopoly? After all, proprietary file formats do encourage lots of people to stick with Office. What you need is a way to become less vulnerable to government lawsuits while retaining your product’s “stickiness”. And then it hits you – make the file formats open but, at the same time, make the user experience proprietary.

    When an Office 2007 user switches to OpenOffice, they’ll be able to open their existing documents easily. But using the interface will feel like stepping back in time, to the period of Office 2003. Ultimately, the user will go back to Office 2007 not because they’re locked in by proprietary file types, but because they’ve learnt and absorbed a proprietary interface. And no-one’s going to launch an antitrust lawsuit simply because Microsoft made some design changes.

    This line of thinking about why Microsoft changed the Office UI so radically may seem slightly paranoid, but there is such a thing as design strategy and companies like Microsoft certainly take it seriously (most of the time). It wouldn’t surprise me, and I wouldn’t see it as controversial, if this “proprietary UX” strategy helped convince Microsoft to invest so much in a risky design overhaul. Given that Office 2007 caused me to abandon Linux and move back to Windows, the strategy – whether it’s real or not – would seem to be working.

    EDIT: unlike me, lots of people really hate the Office 2007 interface. If you’re one of them, you might be interested in this freeware add-in that introduces an old school Office 2003-style menu system into Office 2007