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Microsoft’s vision for work is alive and well. An advertisement for Word for Windows 2.0 from 1991. (Microsoft Image)

Microsoft, more than any other institution on earth, has shaped how we work and how we think about it. If you spend your days in an office (and often if you don’t) everything you do is structured around a model that Microsoft popularized: E-mails in Outlook. Documents in Word. Numbers and project management in Excel. And presentations in PowerPoint. Like it or not, you live and breathe Microsoft’s vision of work.

IBM invented the the earliest word processors in the 1960s, Micropro International introduced the first commercially successful word processor, WordStar, in 1979. And other early productivity software followed, including WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3. But it was Microsoft Office that first packaged these kinds of apps and overtook the workplace, creating the model we still use for work today

Nearly 30 years after Microsoft Office came on the scene, it’s in the DNA of just about every productivity app. Even if you use Google’s G Suite or Apple’s iWork, you’re still following the Microsoft model.

But that way of thinking about work has gotten a little dusty, and new apps offering a different approach to getting things done are popping up by the day. There’s a new war on over the way we work, and the old “office suite” is being reinvented around rapid-fire discussion threads, quick sharing and light, simple interfaces where all the work happens inside a single window. In recent years, the buzzwords in tech have been “AI” and “mobile.” Today, you can add “collaboration” to that list — these days, everybody wants to build Slack-like communication into their apps.

For notes and docs, there’s Quip, Notejoy, Slite, Zenkit, Notion and Agenda. For spreadsheets, there’s Bellevue, Wash.-based Smartsheet, as well as Airtable, Coda and, although it’s a very different take on the spreadsheet, Trello. The list goes on seemingly ad infinitum, largely thanks to the relative ease with which developers can launch software in the cloud.

“Work has totally changed,” said Aaron Levie, the co-founder and CEO of Box, the online storage company that is building its strategy around unifying data and messaging from a dizzying mix of cloud apps. “Employees were lucky to have two, three, five modern applications in the 90s. Now they have almost unlimited ways of being productive.”

Notejoy, like other new productivity apps, combines the word processor with Slack-like collaboration. (Notejoy Image)

At a fundamental level, many of these apps aren’t built atop new technologies like touchscreens or AI so much as they are reinventing anew the way most of us still get our work done — typing on a physical keyboard and in front of a monitor. In this new environment, workers aren’t satisfied with the apps IT gives them anymore. They expect the same simple user interfaces found in the consumer apps they’ve become accustomed to on their phones, and they’re tired of wading through standard-issue file directories based on the classic Windows and Mac OS structures.

That means the way developers get companies to use their software has changed, too. Under the old way of doing things vendors had to win over the IT department and the executive suite. Now, developers are reaching out directly to the end-user — the front-line worker — and relying on word-of-mouth.

In an indication of how widely the productivity market is fragmenting, some companies are limiting the number of sanctioned programs their employees use to four or five. The reason: Nobody can get anything done if a team’s docs are scattered across a whole bunch of writing apps and communication platforms. So says Kevin Gibbs, the co-founder and CEO of Quip, an all-in-one docs, spreadsheet, project manager and communication hub that was snatched up by Salesforce in 2016 and is perhaps the single app most likely to challenge Microsoft Office.

“There are so many tools … that are challenging the premise of the old office suite,” Gibbs said. “(Microsoft) Office hasn’t really changed but the world around us has changed so much.”

Salesforce-owned Quip mixes productivity apps and messaging in a single window. (Quip Image)

To Microsoft’s benefit, the revolution is happening slowly. Microsoft is still the overwhelming juggernaut in productivity software, and that doesn’t look to change any time soon, experts say. Microsoft’s Office suite controlled nearly 88 percent of the market last year, according to the most recent figures available from Gartner. G Suite, Google’s cloud-based document, spreadsheet and presentation apps, is a distant second at 9.7 percent.

Gartner analyst Craig Roth said he predicted a decade ago that startup rivals would begin to erode the big tech companies’ market share, but that hasn’t happened yet. One reason, he said, is that workers rush back to what they know when deadlines are looming — and what they know is Microsoft Office.

Still, while no single newer productivity app looks to unseat Microsoft in the near future, Gibbs, of Quip, said the endless buffet of choice means a swarm of apps could collectively eat away Microsoft’s market share. “This a great time to be a consumer,” Gibbs said. “They are getting the best tools … There is a real desire to change the way that they’re working.”

Microsoft is responding to this new landscape by simplifying its user interfaces and baking features found in newer and increasingly popular apps into Office 365. Last year, it launched its Slack-like communication tool, Teams. In an indication of how much workers want these new kinds of rapid-fire collaboration apps, Microsoft said Teams is the fastest-growing business app in the company’s history, with 329,000 organizations and 87 percent of the Fortune 100, including General Motors and General Electric, using it.

Microsoft Word’s recently redesigned interface. Microsoft is responding to the new wave of productivity apps, in part, by simplifying Microsoft Office’s user experience. (Microsoft Image)

Rob Howard, senior director of product marketing for Office 365, said Microsoft has also simplified Office’s user-interface — long scorned as cluttered and confusing — and reduced it to a single-line “ribbon” across the top of the screen. “There is absolutely a focus from us on a renewed simplicity of that user experience, to make that more simple,” Howard said. “Word online has come a long way in the last few years.”

Microsoft has also snatched up some productivity companies, including Wunderlist, Yammer and Intentional Software, which aided the development of Microsoft’s Whiteboard collaboration app. Howard said Microsoft is also leaning heavily on AI to woo workers. For example, he said, you can now scan a paper copy of a spreadsheet with the Excel Android app and convert the image to a fully functioning Excel spreadsheet.

It was Google that made this new era of web-based productivity apps possible when it introduced Google Docs in 2006 and, in time, proved you could do all of your work in cloud-based apps. Microsoft spotted the danger to its productivity business and rolled out its own online version of Office in 2010.

G Suite raised blood pressure in Redmond and has won big-name customers, including Verizon Communications Inc. and Colgate Palmolive Co, but it didn’t break the mold when it came to productivity software. Instead, Google focused on copying Microsoft Office, obsessively building in over time all or most of Office’s key features, so enterprises would consider it a viable alternative, said Sachin Rekhi, the CEO of Notejoy, a collaborative note taking app.

“They nailed it,” he said of Google Docs’ effectiveness as an online word processor. “But then they just put their entire focus on going after Microsoft’s market share…. They’re just trying to do the same old things that Microsoft does.”

That, Rekhi said, “has resulted in stagnation in word processor market” and created opportunities for companies like Notejoy that are taking a different approach to word processing. Even pioneer notetaker Evernote, which came on the scene more than a decade ago, has stumbled. A large chunk of its leadership team recently fled and the company[just replaced its CEO and laid off 54 workers, which amounts to 15 percent of its workforce.

Meanwhile, the new crop of cloud-driven document creation tools is gaining traction. Smartsheet, which bills itself as a competitor of Excel as well as Microsoft’s project management software, posted revenues of $42.4 million in this year’s second quarter, an increase of nearly 60 percent from last year. Smartsheet said its software is used by 92 of Fortune 100 companies. Airtable, a Smartsheet competitor, said it’s used by more than 80,000 organizations.

Quip doesn’t share numbers of users, but Gibbs said it counts Amazon, Citibank and Amgen among its customers.

These newer work tools take the old word processor, spreadsheet and slide deck and bake comment threads into each so people can talk about what they’re creating in real-time, right inside the document. Users of these apps can also get alerts every time someone makes an update.

The idea is to cut down on the number of steps required to create and share a doc. Consider the conventional process for creating a doc and sharing it with your team:

  1. Open a doc in Word or another word processor.
  2. Navigate through a file system and save the doc in the correct folder.
  3. Write and revise the document’s contents.
  4. When you’re ready to share your work, set up the correct permissions for the document, so only the appropriate eyes will see it.
  5. Open Outlook, then wend once again through the file system to the right folder, and attach the correct file to the email.
  6. Type a few paragraphs in your email explaining what you’re sharing and why.
  7. Include the correct people on the ‘to’ and ‘cc’ lines (You may have to double-check an alias or two).
  8. Draft a subject line and press send.

That’s eight steps, give or take. But we’re not done: Everyone who receives the doc has to open it, make sure they’re not writing over the original content when they make edits, attach comments, then open Outlook again and summarize their thoughts in an e-mailed reply. Now, to create new information and get feedback, we’re talking about roughly a dozen steps.

From this angle, “even Google docs starts to feel very heavy weight,” said Sachin Rekhi, CEO of Notejoy, an app that seeks to make this process simpler. “We are just trying to be the polar opposite of these tools.”

Notejoy and other newer productivity tools like Quip aim to shave five or six of those steps off the process by grouping docs by project and team and allowing everyone involved to review and comment on the work in real-time, chatting within the doc — instead of by e-mail — and getting text-like alerts anytime someone has something to say. This new breed of productivity apps also emphasizes doing everything within a single app (instead of switching between, say, Google Sheets, Slides and Docs), quick and customizable searches, and creating new kinds of repositories that do away with the old file-management directories.

“I remember very clearly … feeling that it was still hard to get things done, even after adopting the most popular tools at the time,” Quip’s Gibbs said of using the original productivity suites. He said he still encounters a lot of people who “have actually felt stuck” doing work the old way.

Airtable is a new take on Excel, emphasizing words over numbers, and the easy creation of databases. (Airtable Image)

All of this raises an important difference between the new productivity app landscape and the old: Increasingly, it’s employees who choose new software — not so much IT departments. Recall that in the old days, a software company would sell IT workers and top executives on a software package.

Now, workers are learning about apps by word of mouth and in the press. They see the possibility of managing projects and sharing information might be faster and simpler. Almost all of these apps — including Microsoft Office 365 now — offer a free tier so they’re easy to try out. Notejoy, for example, offers free collaboration for up to five users.

Rekhi calls it “the consumerization of IT.” Workers, he said, are “bringing (their) own tools into the enterprise,” and app developers are best served by a “bottoms-up” strategy that involves getting a few people to try out an app, “and then it grows within the organization.”

“The vast majority of our daily signups or revenue comes from people who have adopted the product because they heard about it from word of mouth,” said Howie Liu, the co-founder and CEO of spreadsheet and database app Airtable.

Liu said he started Airtable because he saw that most people were plugging words, not numbers, into Excel. Teams, he said, are using Excel to track projects, manage contacts and plan events — all words being entered into a program designed for crunching numerical data. By contrast, Airtable is designed to create databases for words, he said, and it’s allowed companies to switch from not only Excel, but clunky specialty software as well. For example, Liu said, a cattle rancher dumped the livestock-tracking software it had used for years in favor of Airtable. Slack, Box, Target and Buzzfeed also use Airtable, according to the company.

It’s a demonstration of how apps are raising their profile, not by trying to kill off the competition, but by finding a niche that Microsoft or Google aren’t serving — or augmenting the most prominent productivity apps so customers can use them in new ways.

Box, the cloud storage company, may be the epitome of this approach. In what is known in the company as “the Switzerland strategy,” Box aims to bridge any number of online apps, from Microsoft, Google and beyond. During the summer, Box announced a unified activity stream, which the company said makes it easier for people to see how their work is connected across online applications like DocuSign, Salesforce and Slack. Box users can also comment on, share and organize files based on their relationships with team members.

“We think it’s all work,” said Levie, the Box CEO. “We know there’s going to be a mix of solutions that (workers) want to have … That’s a different point of view than what Google and Microsoft has.”

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