Microsoft CEO chooses long chase over head on attack

Winning depends on the pitch staying playable.

The launch of Microsoft Office apps – Excel, Word, Powerpoint – for the iPad has been hailed by some as a turning point for the company and a bold leadership stroke by new CEO Satya Nadella. If anything, the excitement is a fair measure of Microsoft’s problem: the best it can do is port thirty year old software to the market leader’s tablet.

Ironically, Excel and Powerpoint were originally developed for the Mac OS. Only Word began life on a Microsoft operating system – Xenix – and then later made its way to MS-DOS and Mac OS. The three eventually came together as the core of the Office package on Windows, but for the most part have also been a mainstay of OS X. In other words, Office is not a mere sub-set of Windows and has always been cross-platform software.

The strategic point of departure for Nadella is the requirement to buy an Office 365 subscription in order to use the apps on an iPad. You can download all three for free, but they’re just glorified read-only file viewers without the subscription – you can’t change anything or create new documents. The subscription price starts at $100 per year for home users and $150 for businesses (there’s a $60 annual Office 365 package, but it doesn’t include desktop or tablet apps).

Nadella’s strong suit is said to be cloud services, and that might be the rationale behind Office for iPad: forget about Surface tablets and Windows phones, and start selling software and add-on services for any user, on any operating system. It’s a great idea, as Google would have told you nearly ten years ago when they started doing the same thing, except they’re still giving it away for free to basic users, which are most of us.

Batting second is usually considered an advantage in cricket, Nadella’s game of choice. Google scored well in its innings, making it a long chase for Nadella, who has to hope the field of play doesn’t wash out from under him while he’s at it.