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3 Ways That Productivity Apps Can Survive the Microsoft Office Onslaught

With Microsoft making Office free on phones and tablets, alternatives will need to do more than simply exist. Here’s how they can thrive.

3 Ways That Productivity Apps Can Survive the Microsoft Office Onslaught
[Photo: Jonathan Velasquez via Unsplash]

Being a mobile alternative to Microsoft Office used to be pretty easy. All you needed was a subset of its features at a reasonable price, and you could carve out a business based largely on Microsoft’s absence from phones and tablets.

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All of that changed last week, when Microsoft made its Office suite free on all mobile devices. That includes the iPad version–whose document-editing features previously required an Office 365 subscription at a minimum $70 per year–and an upcoming Android tablet version. Microsoft even replaced its stripped-down Office iPhone app with richer standalone apps for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and will be doing the same for Android soon. (Some advanced features are staying behind the Office 365 paywall, and enterprise users will still need a subscription.)

The news amounts to something of a crisis for companies whose strategies involved filling the Microsoftian void. But surviving in a world where Office is not only present, but free, isn’t impossible. Here’s how a few companies are planning to thrive:

1. Strip Down

Even on mobile devices, Office is a lumbering product, with dozens of options and tools spread across multiple menu tabs. While that’s exactly what some people are looking for, it also leaves an opening for simpler apps.

Keeping it simple was the goal for Haiku Deck, a stripped-down presentation app that first launched on the iPad in 2012, followed by web and iPhone versions. With practically no marketing budget, the app has grown to 5 million users, and the current version has a 4.5-star App Store rating.

“What our customers tell us is the reason they’re using our app instead of the many myriad alternatives, including PowerPoint, is we’re making it faster and easier for them to create visual stories that are 10 times more effective,” Adam Tratt, Haiku Deck’s cofounder and CEO (and a former Microsoft product manager) told Fast Company.

Haiku Deck

In fairness, Microsoft has eyes on simpler presentation tools as well. In October, the company announced Sway, an app that automates much of the granular layout work that PowerPoint requires. But while Microsoft is okay with people seeing Sway as a reinvention of a core Office app, the company has made clear that PowerPoint isn’t going away. PowerPoint may absorb some of Sway’s features, but the two apps will live side by side in the Office suite for the foreseeable future.

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Tratt sees that necessity to maintain the traditional Office ecosystem as a liability. “The things that companies like mine have going for them is that we are not encumbered by the baggage,” he said. “We can completely rethink the user experience for a traditional presentation application without alienating a half a billion users.”

2. Find a Focus

Quip is another example of simpler productivity software, but it has a particular focus on collaboration. Each Quip document has a sidebar where collaborators can chat and view a running changelog. There’s a big “Share” button at the top of the document for inviting new people, and any changes appear in real time as they’re synced online.

That emphasis on collaboration led to some unexpected outcomes. Bret Taylor, Quip’s cofounder and CEO, told Fast Company that checklists have become the app’s most popular feature. Quip’s checklists can intermingle with images, blocks of text, and spreadsheets, so businesses are using the app like a digital whiteboard. “Because it’s so free-form, people are molding it to their existing workflow, as opposed to the technology product prescribing the workflow,” Taylor said.

Quip

Quip is rolling with it, encouraging businesses to use the app in place of a traditional task manager, or even email. “When we go to customers, we talk a lot more about collaboration than we do about, say, competing with Microsoft Word,” Taylor said. A lot of companies use the two applications in tandem.

Taylor sees Quip as an example of how new types of mobile apps are changing user behavior. And over the next decade, he believes the tools people use will be completely different. “Quip might not even be different enough yet for the way people’s patterns of usage are changing,” he said.

3. Go Where Microsoft Won’t (or Can’t)

Unlike Quip and Haiku Deck, Kingsoft’s WPS Office isn’t a complete rethinking of productivity software. At a glance, it looks a lot like Office, and for years has distinguished itself mainly by being free. While you might think the free version of Microsoft Office spells trouble for Kingsoft, the company has its counterattack planned out.

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For one thing, WPS Office is free on phones and tablets for both consumers and enterprise users, so penny-pinching businesses can save some money on licensing fees. (Kingsoft does charge for the enterprise version of its desktop software.)

But the more interesting strategy for Kingsoft relies on partnerships with device makers and carriers. For instance, Kingsoft partnered with Amazon on a special version of WPS Office for Kindle Fire tablets and the Fire phone, with deep integration into Amazon’s Cloud Drive storage service. Frank Fu, president of Kingsoft USA, wouldn’t get into the specifics of the arrangement, but said Kingsoft was compensated.

Kingsoft’s WPS Office

Other partnerships involve more typical pre-loading on phones and tablets, and while Kingsoft isn’t paid directly in these cases, the company hopes to make money by adding premium features and additional services to its apps.

Now that Office is free, Microsoft could easily try and partner with hardware makers on its own pre-loading deals. But even in this case, the significant size of Office becomes an obstacle. Combined, the iOS versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint occupy roughly 750 MB of storage, compared to 119 MB for the entire WPS Office suite. (Microsoft hasn’t released its new Android version yet, so its size is unknown.)

Especially in emerging markets like India, file size is “hugely important,” says Eric Villines, Kingsoft’s vice president of global marketing. “It’s a make-or-break decision in getting on these handsets, and it’s something we’ve been able to do because we built our applications from the ground up.”

Considering the options available to developers, there’s certainly enough room in the ecosystem for more than one productivity suite–even when one of the contenders is Office.

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And what if Microsoft isn’t satisfied? What if it somehow completely reinvents its mobile software to be simpler, smaller, and more transformative than its legacy tools? “Obviously, they do have a good brand and a good sales channel,” Quip’s Bret Taylor said, “but they are starting from zero users just like we are at that point.”

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About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com

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