ThinkBoxly is the personal developer blog of Lucas Chasteen, author, programmer, artist, and always learning. Read more

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Who Needs Microsoft Office Anymore?

I’m not being facetious, that’s a legitimate question. There’s no doubt that Microsoft Office has been king of word processors and slide presentations pretty much since the beginning. Office was what put Microsoft on the map in the early days. However, it’s also well-known to fall a little on the pricey side, so it’s no surprise that as time has gone on and technology has matured we’ve seen more and more cheap or free alternatives crop up. Initially these alternatives weren’t even worth the money you saved, but by now a few true competitors have emerged, such as Google Docs or OpenOffice and its fork, LibreOffice. While in terms of plain feature comparison Microsoft Office still takes the cake hands-down, not everyone uses an office suite the same way, and many consumers end up paying mostly for features they’ll never even use. So I ask the question: who needs Microsoft Office anymore? Well, let’s find out.


Pop quiz: what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Microsoft Office? Chances are high you answered Word. And for good reason—writing is a very natural form of human communication, a sign of intelligence in and of itself. Everyone needs to make a document of some kind at one point or another, and these days it’s a required skill in schools and many business places. But for such a versatile, important tool, at its heart it is really quite a basic one. If all you need to do is put text and maybe an image or two on a page, your options are practically endless, and the end results of some of them are practically indistinguishable from what Microsoft Word can churn out. Even Microsoft’s own WordPad (not to be confused with Notepad) is a viable alternative. Many turn to Google Docs for its access-anywhere convenience and rich collaborative features. For serious users who want the traditional Microsoft Word experience sans the ‘Microsoft’, LibreOffice is about as good as it gets (which is pretty good). The singular problem for alternatives in this category is simply that Microsoft Office is still the industry standard. While in recent years it has grown to support alternative document formats and alternative office suites have grown to export to Microsoft Office pretty well, generally if you have any kind of occupation involving regular document creation it’s a good idea to stick with Microsoft even if it’s no longer strictly necessary. While you might be able to sneak by on a .doc exporter in some cases most professionals prefer to see native Microsoft Word documents, and you should definitely not submit an .odt file to a publisher unless explicitly permitted. That is, unless you happen to already be a well-known and profitable author. George R. R. Martin seems to be getting by just fine on WordStar 4.0.

Who needs Microsoft Word? Nobody—unless it’s required by your school or organization.


If Word is the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of Microsoft Office, PowerPoint is very likely the second. A well-done slideshow can be a powerful piece of any presentation, and in this case, Microsoft has much less competition. Oh sure, the options are out there, but while they might be enough for the most basic of slides there’s really nothing quite as robust as PowerPoint, and this is one case where all the little features count for something. In any kind of presentation appearances do matter, and if you learn to use the latest versions of PowerPoint well you’ll easily be able to outclass even the best LibreOffice has to offer. The key there is if you use it well, though. If plain text on a plain background is all you need, then by all means, use Google Docs. I just have a hard time envisioning a situation that calls for a slide presentation not also calling for something a bit more dynamic. Add to that the second screen feature in Office 365 that adds an entire control suite to the host PC screen while displaying just the slideshow on a projector, and you’ve got Microsoft dominance pretty well secured in this regard.

Who needs Microsoft PowerPoint? Anyone who needs to make a slideshow—there’s truly nothing better, but those with basic needs can probably get by without.


It’s hard not to have a love-hate relationship with spreadsheets. On the one hand they’re rather apt to gather everything dull and depressing in one place (e.g. budgets), but on the other they sure beat trying to sort through pages of data manually, and a good spreadsheet processor can even handle a number of complex calculations to save you the headache of figuring the math for yourself and then going back and re-editing when you realize you did it wrong. For all their utility value though, spreadsheets may be on the track to becoming an endangered species. Excel covers a wide range of applications, but these days there are more ad-hoc programs better suited for handling many of them. Take budgets, for example—there was a time when Excel was a staple for every household, but now you’re really better off with software like YNAB. Don’t get me wrong, plain old spreadsheets still have a place, but it’s not as essential to have a solid spreadsheet processor as it used to be. That being said, if ever you do find yourself in need of one, chances are you’ll need Microsoft Excel simply because that’s what everyone else is using. LibreOffice Calc is an admirable competitor, but nothing has the macro and mathematic capabilities of Microsoft’s offering, meaning most Excel files must be opened in Excel, or else certain features of the document may get lost.

Who needs Microsoft Excel? Some business users, collaborators, and anyone who needs some serious macros. For everyone else, free alternatives or software designed for particular use-cases are the way to go (please, spare yourself and don’t use Excel for your budget).

Tertiary Applications

Of course, there’s much more to Microsoft Office than just the three flagship programs we’ve looked at so far, but as time goes on they fall into greater and greater obscurity. Who needs Outlook when web-based email services have capable and elegant UIs of their own, and when Windows 8 even ships with a comparable application? OneNote is terrific, but can be downloaded for free separate from Office packages. Publisher exists in a market dominated by Adobe InDesign, and great as Access is, these days there are simpler alternatives to accomplish what the average Access user would use the software for, and many advanced users would probably just abandon it altogether in favor of Visual Studio. There’s still a sizable user base for these programs out there, but there’s a reason most of them come exclusive to business- and professional-oriented packages of Office. If you don’t plan on using any of these applications for a living, don’t bother. The 1:1 alternatives may not be all that great, but average users probably won’t ever need them thanks again to simpler, more ad-hoc applications filling those gaps.

Who needs Microsoft Outlook? Nobody—it’s a dead market category. Move on, or use Thunderbird. There’s a reason Microsoft just released an Outlook app for Android and iOS—mobile is the only future for dedicated mail apps.

Who needs Microsoft OneNote? Everybody who doesn’t like Evernote. And maybe some people who do. Give it a try, it’s free!

Who needs Microsoft Publisher? (Probably) nobody—while it targets a different use-case than Word most of Publisher’s target audience will just use Word anyway as the more familiar tool. And there’s no real reason they shouldn’t. On the other hand, while there is LibreOffice Draw and even LibreOffice Write, they’re just not the same. So if you do ever need Publisher, go for the real deal.

Who needs Microsoft Access? Business users who need small proprietary applications but lack the technical expertise to develop with Visual Studio. If you’re a home user just looking for something to learn, spend that time learning a more profitable development environment (like Visual Studio).

Mobile Counterparts

Office suites on mobile devices are certainly nothing new. I remember using Docs to Go on Palm OS, and the same company still creates their mobile office suite for Android and iOS today. And they’re joined by a handful of other solid options, and several more not-so-solid ones. But no matter how good a third-party app is, it just won’t be able to match working with a direct port of a desktop office suite. Microsoft certainly took its time in making this sort of interoperability a reality for Office users, but now we have a smartphone application and a more robust suite of tablet apps that fill this gap admirably. I had the opportunity to be among the earliest beta testers for Office for Android tablets, and I came away pretty impressed. Aside from a few small kinks (like no scrollbar on long documents) you can almost forget you’re not using a full-blown Windows installation of Office 365.

The only real competition in the open source front is AndrOpen Office, a direct port of Open Office to Android—and I do mean direct. There are no frills and barely any enhancements for touch-based interaction, but it is the full Open Office suite running on Android. Sometimes the simplicity of this approach is best, even if it is a bit clunky.

Who needs Microsoft Office Mobile? Office 365 users looking to read, create, or edit small documents on the go. For heavy usage and long documents, AndrOpen Office is your best bet, but don’t expect as smooth of a user experience.

And all that is to say nothing of web apps and licensing concerns. There are online versions of both Microsoft Office and OpenOffice (the latter through a Chrome app), further negating the necessity of traditional office suites. And as time has gone on and software licensing has become a veritable mess, Microsoft Office has technically become more and more restricted, which could eventually push a large user base over to alternatives should any major dispute ever arise. And how could that happen, you ask? Well, for business users, it probably won’t. If you’re in a business you need a business edition of Office to use at the workplace—that much should be obvious. Still, its less known that the Home and Student editions are not merely feature-reduced, they’re also only licensed for non-commercial use. What counts as commercial use? According to Microsoft’s TOS, any “revenue-generating activities”. That means, technically, you can’t write a book in Microsoft Office 365 Home, you need the Business or Professional version (or to buy an individual Office app with a commercial license). Now, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that a good many authors have published books written in Home versions of Office and not suffered any legal repercussions for it, but the disturbing fact remains that as far as the law is concerned these authors owe Microsoft some kind of fine. Writers armed with OpenOffice or LibreOffice, on the other hand, have no such ethical concern.

In the end, there’s clearly no easy answer to the question of Microsoft Office’s continued necessity. In many cases it’s still the best thing out there, and even where it is not, it’s still the industry standard. But where there’s a will to get along without it there’s probably a way, thanks to free and open source software that has had the time to mature into a force to be reckoned with. Depending on your office needs you may well be able to ditch Microsoft. But should you? That’s for you to decide.