Office vs. Explorer

I’ve been laboring under the belief that Microsoft’s tardiness in enhancing its Internet Explorer browser was a mistake, opening the door for alternatives like Firefox. But at a dinner recently, one of my tablemates offered a very different explanation. Microsoft has deliberately avoided enhancing Explorer, he argued, because it doesn’t want it to get too good. As long as browsers are hampered by poor responsiveness and incompatibility problems, they’re less likely to provide an alternative user interface for a broad range of applications. Microsoft, in this view, wants the browser to be good enough for viewing web pages, but not so good that it takes over the desktop.

I certainly have some doubts about this thesis, but it seems to be backed up by a new story in Fortune. In interviews with the magazine, Microsoft’s chief executive Steve Ballmer and director of platform strategy Charles Fitzgerald both went out of their way to pooh-pooh the browser’s ability to serve as a front end for applications. What should become the default interface for business apps, they argued, is Microsoft Office. As Fortune’s David Kirkpatrick reports: “Ballmer said the browser just isn’t good enough as an interface to corporate information. ‘As people want to view information, comment on it, mark it up, and make it pretty, then you want to do that in Office,’ he says. Added Fitzgerald in a follow-up e-mail: ‘The browser is a great way to access information, but a pretty crummy tool for acting on information. It is basically read-only.'” According to the magazine, “Ballmer said Microsoft wants Office to become the front-end portal to just about every business application.”

Transforming Office from a set of by-now mundane office applications into a common interface for enterprise applications is a smart move for Microsoft. It’s probably the best way for the company to maintain – or even expand – its traditional hold over the user interface in business. But it also exposes conflicts in Microsoft’s business. If the company wants to maintain the dominance of Internet Explorer, it’s going to have to dramatically improve the program, which it’s promising to do with the rollout of Windows Vista next year. If it doesn’t push Explorer’s capabilities forward, it could face the worst case scenario: the browser emerges as the default front end for applications while Explorer is displaced as the leading browser.

It’s in Microsoft’s interest, in other words, to enhance the browser, but it’s also in the company’s interest to keep the browser “a pretty crummy tool,” as Fitzgerald put it. In a very real sense, Office and Explorer are now competitors.

6 thoughts on “Office vs. Explorer

  1. Filip Verhaeghe

    Yes, “Office 12” is a great platform to connect to backend systems. And it provides real value for their business solutions segment. But I don’t think Office is meant to serve home users any time soon. Considering that there aren’t a lot of business users not already using Excel and other Office products, this translates in easier integration, an easier user experience, for the business user. I believe their primary concern is to stay ahead of open source office products, and make sure Office keeps selling in another upgrade cycle. But I doubt anybody expects Google or Salesforce to use Office to provide entry forms or show results. Thin client technology and Office are just two different beasts.

    At the same time, Microsoft’s innovation in the browser world in Vista make it the best platform ever built for web applications, far beyond what is commonly thought of as a browser. In Vista, you can have the rich application (as if it were installed locally) running straight over the Internet. As I wrote in Is Google a Threat to Microsoft Windows?, this new technology is a win-win for Microsoft and Google, and other utility computing companies. Microsoft is providing the tools to create really good Utility applications.

    In the light of those developments, the browser seemed obsolete or at least not worthy of investment. But with tabbed browsing and security at the forefront, Microsoft has reversed that position.

  2. Filip Verhaeghe

    I wrote an blog article to better explain my point:

    In his blog, Nicholas Carr writes an article on Office vs. Explorer, in which he contemplates whether the browser wasn’t upgraded because Microsoft doesn’t want the browser to take over the desktop.

    I don’t agree with this view, since it is inconsistent with the fact that Microsoft is introducing XAML, which allows applications to essentially run over the Internet. (more)

  3. Vipin Samar

    The forbes article was an interesting one.

    I would have to agree that “Exploring” is quite different from “decision making”, and hence all those statements from Balmer and Fitzgerald. Just ask any business user. Its actually a bit surprising that Microsoft took such a long time in capitalizing on this need of getting data directly inside Excel and other Office tools.

    Microsoft is just going where the potential of money is. Note that all these new features of Office connectivity are ONLY for the users of Microsoft Office 2003, Professional edition. Thus, they want you to upgrade to the new releases. Not a bad strategy. Competition could just provide same features but from Office 2000 and above and still be ahead.

  4. ordaj

    Their price point is going to kill them. Free and easy (Google, open source) is going to carry the day. In their drive for more profits, they need to foist an Office upgrade on the corporate world because they’re the ones who can afford it. Unfortunately, the little people can’t and they’re the ones who will be learning and using the alternatives and who will be hired by corps. The bottom strategy…that Micosoft used so well growing up. But, profit demands forces them to grow and move away from the vast, sheer numbers and into the, they hope, willing spenders of corporations.

    But corporations will be hiring people who have been forced to use other products and they will still want to cut costs (it’s the easiest path to Wall Street appeasement and quick share-price appreciation).

    MS is screwed.

  5. Sergey Kucherov

    I agree with Steve Balmer on this one: the browser is read-only. I am tired to use all those “web-based” applications, which despite nice pictures and fancy fonts are not much more than old mainframe programs. Everything is computed on the server and you just send small portion of data from your terminal – one screen at a time. This is good for server manufacturers and system administrators – not for users.

    I am impressed by new features of Microsoft Office 2003. This is one of them called Web Query. You can open web page in Excel and select any table to be captured in your spreadsheet. Now you can do with the information whatever you want – you may add your data and formulas, change fonts and layout. It takes only one key to update the data in the spreadsheet, when it changes on the web.

    Today I use an RSS browser to read Blogs, a sidebar to search both local and internet content, Google Earth to find a place, ACDSee or Picasa to share my pictures, and Skype to call friends. Browser is just one of the programs to work with Internet and I like it this way.

  6. Sam Hiser


    This is another perceptive piece you’ve done.

    The observation is consistent with the gapping innovation Mozilla has already put into Firefox (…which indicates deliberately low-set goals for IE).

    Additionally, anything Google will do — including the new ability to play media files (I hope I saw that right) — would be through the browser (the development of which they are assisting).

    Moreover, IBM’s Workplace will depend mightily upon the browser. These are all developments which negate the “Rich Client.”

    Thank you.

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