What if Microsoft threw an iPad Office party, and no one came?

Even if customers don't pour billions into Microsoft's coffers, supporting rival mobile platforms is crucial to the company's future, analysts say

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Among the alternatives that may be "good enough," as Silver put it, for many: iWork, which Apple began giving away to owners of new iPads last year, and Google's Apps for Business, an inexpensive browser-based set of tools.

Neither are Microsoft Office, nor are the slew of other iOS and Android productivity apps, but then that's not the point. The longer Microsoft waits, the more entrenched those apps become, Silver argued, even if they're not perfect, even if they don't render documents with as much fidelity to the original as Microsoft's apps would presumably do.

It's not just about new customers

Ben Bajarin of Creative Strategies also wondered whether Office on the iPad would be an automatic hit. But he saw a failure to pull in billions, if that were to happen, as beside the point.

"Launching Office on the iPad, or for any other mobile platform, is not a new customer-acquisition strategy, but rather one that supports existing customers," said Bajarin in an interview today. "It's Microsoft's responsibility to let customers that have paid a lot to use Office ... use it on any platform."

Under that scenario, Microsoft's decision to develop Office on the iPad -- which Bajarin called "the standard tablet tool in the business world" -- was neutral-to-defensive. "It's somewhat defensive in that if they don't do Office for the iPad, there's a possibility that they'll lose existing customers," Bajarin said.

If Bajarin is right, Microsoft is not expecting to book large amounts of additional revenue. "Others see Microsoft as leaving money on the table without Office on the iPad," Bajarin noted. "But this is more about the opportunity to get their foot in the door on other platforms, then evolve not only Office, but their other services as well."

Microsoft, with its professed pivot to a "devices and services" strategy kicked off in 2012 by former CEO Steve Ballmer, must broaden the reach of its software -- some of which is delivered in service style -- and its actual services, almost every analyst believes. Office, as one of the company's strongest revenue pillars, has to be a part of that.

The innovator's dilemma

"They don't have the luxury of trying to drive their customers back to Windows any longer," Bajarin said of Microsoft. "If their solutions are on a platform that is becoming less dominant, they must offer their software on the platforms people are using, or risk customers going to alternatives."

"Microsoft is the poster child for the innovator's dilemma," said Silver, referring to the concept that companies with deep revenue streams from legacy products or services are hesitant to risk that revenue by adapting to changing circumstances.

Microsoft has been cast as in that corner because it has largely missed the shift to mobile computing with smartphones and tablets since the 2007 introduction of the iPhone and the 2010 launch of the iPad.

"They have to look at what's happening in the landscape," said Bajarin. "With their total share of operating systems declining, they're not participating in any of the upside. Windows doesn't materially exist in any growth area. As a software and services company, it's a foregone conclusion that Microsoft is no longer a platform company. It has to orient itself to support any platform."

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