To own productivity, Microsoft needs to build new tools


Businesses of all sizes have been relying on Microsoft and their products to do business for years. Today Microsoft Office remains the standard for desktop publishing at a vast majority of businesses. Office has done a good job of modernizing and offering cross-platform apps to their customers, where excellent apps can be found on every major platform, keeping the competition at bay for the time being.

The Next Generation of Productivity Users

Business communication still largely depends on email, but Microsoft offers real-time communication tools like Skype for Business and enterprise social with Yammer alongside their Exchange email service. Even in the world of free communication tools, Microsoft has solid offerings with and Skype. Recently Microsoft has even done the engineering work to connect their business chat product, Skype for Business, with their consumer Skype, which has opened a new door for customer interactions.

Microsoft's Office Offerings Today (Image Credit: Microsoft)
Microsoft’s Office Offerings Today (Image Credit: Microsoft)

Cloud storage has become a business and consumer requirement for any modern ecosystem. With OneDrive and OneDrive for Business, Microsoft has done a great job of connecting their Office programs with their cloud storage solutions. Now users can store and retrieve documents in the cloud within their Office program of choice. OneDrive for Business integrates nicely with SharePoint and Yammer, providing a natural way for businesses to begin doing more in the cloud and less on premises.

Microsoft seems to be doing everything right when it comes to offering a product for every use case, so why are companies like Slack, Hipchat, Trello, Google for Work, Dropbox, and Box are beating Microsoft at attracting the next generation of customers? Not only do these companies have the advantage of de-emphasizing files and programs, but they provide efficient workflows within their service. Document creation  and editing tools have become a commodity, and Microsoft has missed out on the workflow wave, and as a result, the company needs to define the next productivity wave.

With all their great tools, Microsoft has no cohesive product that connects the dots. Task management in the Microsoft ecosystem is scattered across different products, where each one is different from the next. There’s no simple way to link communications, documents, tasks, meetings, notes, events, and people together in a meaningful way. Most business are required to find tools elsewhere, make their own using Excel, or ignore the issue of task management altogether.

Microsoft Project
Microsoft Project

There is a rich history at Microsoft of identifying and solving business problems. Microsoft identified the importance of the cloud and then discovered their unique ability to deliver a hybrid cloud, which then gave rise to Microsoft Azure. Every business has work they need to get done and people who need to do that work. Microsoft’s current task management solutions are seriously lacking and their strategy is confusing.

There’s a product called Microsoft Project, which is a desktop program and a separate online tool that stands as the entirety of Microsoft’s enterprise project management tools. Microsoft Project is a cumbersome, expensive, and outdated approach of managing tasks and projects. Regardless if some people like it, the issue becomes that Microsoft Project does not attract new users to the Microsoft platform. Without mobile apps and the fact that Microsoft Project is not included in Office 365 subscriptions, the platform is an instant turn off to current and prospective Office users.

Competition is welling up against Office, where the competition isn’t necessarily delivering a better product, but a decent and cheaper product. Many students, schools, startups, and small businesses see Google’s online suite of products as good enough and the price is right. Microsoft cannot compete on price with Google Sheets, Docs, and Slides because it is already free. Instead they need to accept that document editing for most people has become a commodity and instead offer something that Google cannot deliver, such as integration and intelligence.

Office Graph Dev Stack
Office Graph Dev Stack

The Office Graph is a platform that Microsoft has been developing around the interconnections in Office 365. Documents, emails, employee hierarchy, groups, and more are the data points to map how a company works together. This data would be invaluable when building a tool that manages tasks and to-do lists. The Office Graph could remove lots of the pain surrounding meaningful project management. Tracking documents, requesting data, finding documents, getting approvals and input can be the worst part of keeping a project on track.

Why Choose Windows?

Windows remains the dominant OS for most traditional businesses and enterprises, where the OS serves as the home for the best Office experience by a slim margin. Microsoft has a strong app presence on iOS and Android. With the Office experience on every platform, then the question arises, why choose Windows? While Microsoft has done an amazing job at delivering a good cross-platform experience to their users, they have not developed any serious incentives for productivity minded companies to choose Windows.

To own productivity of the future, Microsoft needs to build a tool to connect their strongholds. Microsoft is in a unique position to unite all of their different enterprise offerings into a single productivity management tool or suite of complementary tools. By offering the tools to manage projects, track tasks, follow documents, update timelines, and connect communications, Microsoft can keep Office from fading into irrelevancy.

These productivity tools, could be built into Windows and offer an experience other platforms are incapable of matching. When built into Windows, users could select a file and request to be updated when a particular person reviews it, or set reminders with phone numbers and agendas preloaded, or set a reminder based on when a user has opened a file or program. Microsoft’s own PowerApps reveals their interest in automating workflows, making line of business apps easier to create and manage.

When planning a project, PMs should be able to connect relevant information with the person assigned to do the task. Need Bill to work with Steve to investigate an issue by connecting photos, emails, due dates, and contact information, all stored in different places, into the single task? Businesses today are overwhelmed with data and tools; Microsoft needs to create a tool that enables shared workflows to cut down on the amount of duplicate work being done.

There are many project management tools available today, and Microsoft has been creating sophisticated services like the Office Graph and Cortana, both of which could Microsoft a unique advantage. Project management is not productivity, but merely the scaffolding that productivity occurs within. Without good project management, small things get overlooked, the same mistakes reoccur, deadlines are missed, and poor communication becomes a barrier to progress.

Wunderlist is now part of Microsoft
Wunderlist is now part of Microsoft

Microsoft Must Provide Modern Tooling

As of today, Microsoft offers their Office users no modern tools to manage projects. Acquiring Wunderlist was a good start, but now Microsoft needs to continue experimenting and developing tools for modern productivity. Failing to acknowledge this gap in their portfolio means handing their reputation as the owners of productivity to the first company to take a platform approach to project management.