Free Mini-Office from Microsoft?

There’s some renewed chatter about Microsoft’s plans for a subscription-based Office and even a free, ad-based alternative. Some rumors put the subscription price in the $12/ month range, which I believe is way too expensive for basic productivity tools, hence the need for another business model: offering MS Works for free, supported by advertising.

MS Works is nowadays widely considered a “dumbed down” version of its big brother, the real MS Office suite, but I beg to disagree.

Two decades ago MS Works was my main productivity suite: I was happily crunching numbers, generating charts, including them as well as data from my database in word-processing documents. In other words, I had a perfectly working and lightweight integrated office suite at the time when Word, Excel and Powerpoint were fragmented individual applications not talking to each other. For all its capabilities Works was very lightweight, I could use it on a laptop with 640K memory (that’s K, not MB!) and two 720k floppy drives – no hard-disk at all.

I can’t say this enough, Microsoft had a perfectly working integrated suite 20 years ago, which should have become what Office is today. But I guess you need bloatware to charge bloated prices, so Microsoft shoved Works aside, favoring the higher margin, high-end but fragmented products, which took years to become a true Office Suite.

The 80/20 rule applies for the MS Office Suite, in fact I’d rather say 90/10: 90% of users only need 10% of the functionality. MS Works has that – but now that it’s making a comeback (?), an ironic situation develops: the new online challengers like Google Docs and the Zoho Suite were targeting the mainstream Office Suite, and while in terms on features (needed or not) they are still behind Word, Excel..etc, the comparison to Works would quite possibly have a different outcome. I wouldn’t be surprised if Zoho Writer, Sheet and Show turned out to offer richer functionality than Works, and then we did not even look at the collaboration, mobility offered by the fact that they are Web-based.

Conclusion: MS Works should have been a winner 20 years ago, and ever since. Now it’s too little, too late.