As Microsoft prepares to show off Office 2010 this week at its Worldwide Partner Conference, it must feel that it is running out of features to add to the hugely successful bucket of desktop applications, or angles to pitch for it.
It's odd to think back to the early 1990s and just how remarkably low-key the arrival of the first version of Office for Windows seemed at the time. Although Microsoft is often viewed as having a master plan to lock customers in and lock rivals out, the suite was rumoured to have been prompted in part by Lotus's plans for SmartSuite, a rival collection that was to blend the 1-2-3 spreadsheet with the Ami word processor, Freelance Graphics presentations program, Approach database and cc:Mail client.
In response, perhaps, Microsoft lumped together Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Mail. Since that time, Office has become as common an element of the modern business as the typewriter was in the 1960s.
It has often been argued that Microsoft only made the second-best applications in their categories, although this has often seemed questionable to me. Others say that Microsoft gave a bum steer to rival ISVs, telling them to focus on OS/2 while all the time knowing that the real push would be towards Windows. Whatever the facts of the matter, Microsoft Office gave Lotus a frightful drubbing and helped account for other waifs and strays of the PC software business like Borland, Ashton-Tate, WordPerfect and SPC.
I'm probably more sympathetic to Microsoft than many, having observed at first-hand the delight of those shifting from DOS programs and revelling in the creativity unleashed by the GUI and clever features like envelope printing. New versions of Office used to spark real changes in workplace productivity. Pedants might argue that Mac users had long enjoyed such capabilities but that is ancient history. Microsoft won the business war sometime in the mid-1990s, even if there was no formal declaration of victory.
Today's versions of Office applications are a sight more elegant than their predecessors and benefit from more stable operating systems than Microsoft once offered but, having added bell upon whistle and heaped Pelion on Ossa in features and workflow aids, it's difficult to see how Microsoft can change the desktop again. Certainly, the prospect of web versions of apps seems a pure me-too defensive gesture.
The release of a new version of Office was once a major event but now, somewhat like Windows releases, they are often met with contempt by CIOs who long ago tired of the software release cycle. Microsoft will doubtless be able to cite gazillions of users for Office 2010 but many of these will move as part of broad-brush refreshes and to ensure compatibility with partners and peers. Office has been a terrific product but it no longer engenders excitement or much in the way of anticipation.