The Real Threat to Microsoft Office: Maybe Not Web Apps

By Josh Catone
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A lot of fuss was made recently when Google added footnotes to its Docs web app. Not because the ability to add footnotes is such a killer feature — Microsoft Word has had it for as long as probably anyone can remember — nor because it represented any great feat of engineering. Rather, the most impressive aspect of the new footnote feature in Google Docs was the timing of its addition.

According to Garett Rogers, who write the Googling Google blog for ZDNet, the Mountain View-based company added footnotes to their web application just two days after Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer characterized Docs as a non-threat. “You can’t even put a footnote in a document,” he said.

It wasn’t the actual feature, so much as Google’s demonstrated agility in adding it that was impressive. “The agility, and horsepower that Google has behind it is something that companies — even Microsoft — should be wary of, and definitely shouldn’t take lightly,” says Rogers.

However, for all that, Google still has yet to do much more than take a nibble at Microsoft’s dominant office application market share. According to Microsoft, there are a whopping 550 million users of Microsoft Office around the world. Google Docs, meanwhile, only attracts a paltry 1.3 million visitors per month according to Quantcast.

Clearly, Google has a lot of work to do before it can undo the stranglehold that Microsoft has on the office software market. So where is the real greatest threat to Microsoft’s cash cow?

It might just be in desktop software from the open source world. Specifically,, which shipped a major version upgrade this month. In the first week since shipping version 3, was downloaded 3 million times. That’s still a drop in the bucket compared to Microsoft Office’s supposed user numbers, but what might be most potentially worrisome for Microsoft is that 80% of downloaders were Windows users. That indicates that Windows users are open to alternatives to Microsoft software (especially if they’re free). head of marketing John McCreesh thinks that those numbers are actually undercounting Linux users, who usually get updates via their vendor. He guesses there might actually 5 million installed copies out there right now of the latest version of

“[In 2004] we aimed to have a 40% market share by 2010. That doesn’t seem as ambitious today as it did four years ago,” says McCreesh. Well, if Microsoft’s numbers are accurate, that actually does seem pretty ambitious. But the numbers so far indicate that the greatest threat to Microsoft’s office software dominance might come from open source desktop software, and not from the cloud and Google.

One thing is certain: Microsoft is starting to feel pressure from all sides.

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  • Who proofreads these things ? The Real Threat to Microsoft Office: Maybe Not Web Apps should be The Real Threat to Microsoft Office: Maybe Not be Web Apps

  • Thanks for your vigilance gsoft, but Josh’s title is quite grammatically correct, and inserting a “be” into it doesn’t add anything.

  • It would probably be smoother to say, “The Real Threat to Microsoft Office: It Might Not Be Web Apps” … but that is entirely too long for a headline. ;)

    Headline writing is an imprecise art — communicating in such a limited amount of space is difficult and some efforts don’t work quite as well as others. A couple of years ago I wrote for a political news web site, and writing headlines was a large part of my job. Their system forced me to write headlines that were specific character lengths, and if you bolded the headline (which we did for “hot” stories), it through everything off and you often had to rewrite them!

  • Neo

    Josh’s title is correct. I would suggest replacing the colon with a long dash (—), as it is a “continuation” of the first phrase.

  • I haven’t download Open Office 3 yet – but MS Office 2007 is far superior to OO V2. I wish OO luck, but they have a lot of work to do to get to 40%.

    The other problem is that while a lot of people download it, not all continue to use it. So although they had 3 million downloads – they can’t really say they have 3 million users.

    Meh, that’s the trouble with statistics. 67% are made up on the spot.

  • Stevie D

    Ooh, a new OpenOffice? I’ll have to have a look at that!

    There are some things about OpenOffice 2 that I don’t like or that aren’t as good as MS Office or that MS Office doesn’t have either but should really be implemented. If they aren’t in the new version, maybe I should make up a proper wish-list with use cases for each of them.
    – better options for drawing curved lines
    – option to format chart x-axis as date-time
    – some spreadsheet formulæ and functions.

    Apart from those minor irrirations, I’ve been very happy with OO over the years, and the native “Export as PDF” is a killer app as far as I’m concerned.

  • Ooh, a new OpenOffice? I’ll have to have a look at that!

    I didn’t realise there was a new version either. My 2.x versions have always prompted me whenever a new one is ready for download but I guess it’s like Firefox when they move to a new full number version.

    Who proofreads these things ? The Real Threat to Microsoft Office: Maybe Not Web Apps should be The Real Threat to Microsoft Office: Maybe Not be Web Apps

    It’s always a good idea when you’re pointing out grammatical or spelling errors in others’ work, that you actually get your own post right.

  • I like Open Office but I do use MS Office. In the absence of MSOffice, I’ll gladly use Open Office and I know it won’t constraint me in any real way.

    PS: I currently use Open Office to convert my MS Word docs into PDF. :-)

  • Anonymous

    The high number of OO downloads can just as easily be attributed to the practice of bundling Open Office with Java updates. If a Java user does not uncheck a box during the update process, OO is included in the installation. I think the increase in numbers has to be taken with a grain of salt. Even this article contributes to the marketing effort behind Open Office.

  • artemesia

    I used to teach MS Office in law firms where they really use esp. the word processing in depth. When MSOffice 2007 came out I installed it on my laptop. I HATE the ribbons! I know what the program’s capabilities are but what a pain in the neck to have to constantly look in Help just to find where they’ve hidden everything! When I bought a new desktop computer last year I installed Open Office and haven’t looked back. Granted, I’m no longer formatting pleadings and heavily numbered contracts but for my personal use OO is great! I made a 15-year career out of MS’s lame programming and I choose not to subject myself to it any longer, especially since there is a free alternative that is certainly as good, or better, for moderate use.

  • OO is good. I’m using it but MS is an institution and OO will never reach 40% of marketplace…

  • Jonathan

    How would it be worrisome that windows users account for 80% of downloads when windows marketshare is 90%+? That just means that windows users are downloading it at a lower rate than those using other operating systems…

  • @Johnathan: Because most mainstream users associate open source alternatives with Linux and alternative operating systems. That the largest percentage of users of use Windows indicates (to me at least) that they’ve done a good job to change that perception and have perhaps targeted mainstream users quite well.

    I could be wrong, but that’s how I read it.

  • pembo13

    Linux users really download OpenOffice from the website. Hence the 80% Windows users and low numbers. Most Linux users get from software repos.

  • Spheroid

    I personally tell all my friends when they’re looking to buy a computer to not buy MS Office and download OO. I’m looking to buy a computer now and will do the same myself. It gets the job done. I hate the ribbons in MS Office as well. MS likes to make things more difficult over time, instead of easier.

  • Hierophant

    Downloads are improper indicators of market acceptance. How many of those downloads result in active usage of the software? How many are abandoned. It is less likely that someone who pays money for a product is going to abandon it immediately which makes software purchases a better indicator of marketshare.

    A case in point, I am one of the 3 million people who downloaded the software. However I continue to use Microsoft Office 2007 simply because the new version of simply does not compete. Most office workers have no need for a Database Application. This is why Microsoft Access was removed from many Office configurations. However they do have need of an application like OneNote, which was added to different configurations. They also have need for an application that integrates email, calendars, and todo lists ala Outlook or Evolution.

    Even though has made strides it still feels behind just opening the applications and using them. It makes me feel like I am still using Office 2000 in all honesty. I realize Sun has different ideas on User Interfaces but you would think those ideas would improve over the last decade following the trends displayed in MacOS, Vista and even Linux distributions.

    If is meant to be an Office killer than it needs to be distributed differently. I should be able to create an account on the site and pick the applications I want for download. Where are the counterpoints to Onenote, Vizio, Outlook, Accounting, and Publisher? All things that have more bearing on using Office Applications in an actual office. I could build these using the spreadsheet and database applications. I could find other applications that provide the same capabilities or I can spend money on Microsoft Office and get everything in one package without a lot of hassle and get support included. When you add in the costs of commercial support, Microsoft Office still comes out less expensive.

    Like I said, its great that they are improving. However they have a long way to go still before providing the tools that a small business needs to do business from a single office suite.

  • markfiend

    What home user has the money to upgrade from the software their computer came with? Office Home and Student 2007 for a hundred quid versus OpenOffice for free? It’s a no-brainer.

    And I rather think that open source software is a safer bet than “warez” sites.

  • James

    I’ve downloaded every version of OpenOffice, usually five to ten times, and will continue to do so, but I never use it for real work. That goes to MS Office.

    I keep track of OpenOffice in hopes that it will one day be good enough to replace Ms Office, but so far it just isn’t good enough.

    Three million downloads sounds good, but I doubt if more than a quarter of those who download OpenOffice actually use it to replace MS Office.