Opinion: To Surface or not to Surface

Microsoft needs to make up its mind whether it wants to stay a software company or if it's really serious about being a hardware power as well

Why would it be a tough decision for Microsoft to introduce versions of its Office productivity suite for iOS and Android?

According to Bob O'Donnell of research firm IDC, " The day they introduce Office for iOS and Android, they'll start printing money." And he added this cautionary note: "If they wait too long, they risk people finding alternatives, or workarounds."

The thing that has turned Microsoft, prince of Redmond, into a vacillating Hamlet is the thought that an Office suite for iPads and Androidtablets might well tank already anemic sales of the Surface RT and keep the Surface Pro from taking off.

Its hesitation is understandable. Office on iOS and Android would kill Microsoft's Surface tablets. That means that the choice Microsoft is facing is huge: whether to continue its foray into being a hardware vendor or go back and shore up its software roots.

When pushed on the Office question, Steve Ballmer danced around the point: "We do have a way for people always to get to Office through the browser, which is very important. And we'll see what we see in the future." I say he avoided the point because the newly released Office 365 just doesn't work that well on the iPad. And in any event, if you do subscribe to the full Office 365 Home Premium package, you get some, but not all, of the Office 365 apps.

Of course, you can also use Office Web Apps on your iPad via the Safari browser, but it's not very pretty either. So when IDC's O'Donnell talks about alternatives, he probably isn't referring to Microsoft's Web-based Office tools. Other choices are better. Google Docs, especially with GoDocs for Google Docs works just fine. And the superior on-board office suites out there are Office2HD, Quickoffice Pro HD and even Apple's new updated iWork suite.

But while these are all very good alternatives, a lot of iPad and Android tablet users would welcome an Office suite with open arms. The various components of Office remain the default for many users. And that fact is at the heart of Microsoft's dilemma, because that preference for Office could be leveraged to the advantage of Microsoft's own tablets. The company could probably sell a lot more of them if Surface constituted the only route to a full-featured Office suite on a tablet.

If, however, Microsoft makes Office available for those more popular tablets as well, Surface will never catch up. Microsoft must know that it's looking at the possibility of Surface joining the ranks of Zune.

So that's the billion-dollar question Microsoft is facing. Does it put all its eggs in the software basket, as it has done for the most part during all its existence, or does it continue to seek a foothold as a hardware vendor? If Office for iOS and Android does come along, it has decided to forgo its dreams of hardware riches.

As Hamlet might sum it all up: Thus sales do make cowards of us all; and enterprises of great pith and moment, with this regard their marketing turns awry, and lose the name of action.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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