Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer insinuated that the company is working on a version of Office for the iPad and for Android tablets when he addressed Wall Street analysts on Thursday.
Speaking about "upside opportunities" that exist for Microsoft, Ballmer talked about porting products to non-Windows platforms. "We don't have our heads in the sand," he said during the company's meeting with financial analysts, which was held in a Bellevue, Washington convention center and webcast live.
In this context Microsoft is "working on everything that you think we should be working on," Ballmer said.
Windows is the preferred platform for Microsoft applications and remains supremely important, but executives have less "religion" than people think and keep their "eyes wide open" with regards to the opportunities for generating additional revenue by porting products like Office to other platforms, he said.
To be sure, Ballmer didn't refer specifically to Office for iOS and Android, but it seemed clear that this is what he had in mind, since this issue has been a constant source of criticism for the company, which is leaving a lot of money on the table by not offering full, native versions of Office for the Apple and Google mobile OSes.
In a question-and-answer session after his prepared remarks, he once again took up this theme, saying "our devices carry our services, and our services will be available on a number of people's devices."
He mentioned SkyDrive, Skype and OneNote, which are available in iOS and Android versions, as examples of the direction Microsoft is going. However, he also said that part of the difficulty lies with Apple and Google in how they run their respective app stores.
Skype, for example, is as "cross platform as could be, and we probably should use it to capture more functionality" but Apple frowns on allowing suites on its app store, he said.
"They know they have to avoid [competitors] getting too much traction with their services on their devices, but we're working away on it and it's very, very important to us," Ballmer said.
"Devices come with services, services have to find their way onto non-Microsoft devices and we certainly have to support that without religious bias, if you will," he added.
Earlier, during a panel discussion, Qi Lu, executive vice president of Microsoft's Applications and Services Group, had danced around a question about this issue, giving a quasi-professorial explanation for how Microsoft decides when and where to port software, but ultimately refraining from giving any concrete answer.
Many believe Microsoft has been reticent to offer Office for iPad in particular out of fear that doing so will hurt the value of Windows 8, which is optimized for tablets, and of the new Surface RT tablets, and instead help iOS and Apple. Neither the new Microsoft OS nor its new tablets have fared as well as expected.
Ballmer's comments were the most surprising in the four-hour meeting, in which he and his lieutenants spent most of the time making a case for why Microsoft, despite its challenges, is in good shape to recover from past mistakes and take advantage of market opportunities in the coming years.
Yes, they acknowledged, Microsoft is in a weak position in the smartphone and tablet OS markets, and Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and the Surface tablets haven't fixed that problem. But, they said, the company will try again with Windows 8.1, due in mid-October, with the still-pending acquisition of the Nokia smartphone business and with an upcoming second generation of the Surface devices.
They went over the company's strategy to transform itself from a provider of packaged, on-premises software to a provider of devices and cloud services. They said this process is underway and will be helped by the recently announced reorganization designed to make the company work in a more cohesive way, a restructuring that is being implemented.
Ballmer did specifically list four areas in which Microsoft must deliver in the coming years in order to succeed: Office 365 and the Azure cloud platform; Windows PCs; smartphones and tablets; and innovation in "high value" opportunities.
Office 365, the cloud suite of productivity, messaging and collaboration applications, is doing very well and is on a US$1.5 billion annual revenue run rate, officials said. It will be a vehicle for Microsoft to continue delivering other applications via the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, Ballmer said.
Despite the cratering of the worldwide PC business, Microsoft must stick with it, because the PC will continue to be the device of choice for people when they need to be productive, as opposed to tablets, which are more content-consumption devices, according to Ballmer. He said he's confident Windows 8.1, due in mid-October, will offer "distinct improvements" over Windows 8.
CFO Amy Hood gave a peek at how Microsoft plans to do its financial reporting starting this quarter to match its corporate reorganization. As part of the restructuring, Microsoft dissolved its five business units -- the Business Division, which housed Office; Server & Tools, which included SQL Server and System Center; the Windows Division; Online Services, which included Bing; and Entertainment and Devices, whose main product was the Xbox console.
It has replaced them with four engineering groups organized by function, around operating systems, applications, cloud computing and devices, and by centralized groups for marketing, business development, strategy and research, finance, human resources, legal and operations.
Hood said the company will now report its financial performance according to five segments under two main categories:
The first category is Devices and Consumer and includes three segments:
-- hardware, which includes the Surface tablets and Xbox;
-- licensing, which includes Windows OEM sales, Windows Phone, Office for consumers and IP licensing;
-- "other," which includes Bing, MSN, Office 365 Home Premium, and video games
The second category is Commercial and includes two segments:
-- licensing, which includes Windows for the enterprise, server products, Office for businesses, Dynamics and unified communications products like Lync
-- "other," which includes enterprise services, Office 365 for businesses and Azure
Hood said Microsoft will provide more detailed explanations later about this new financial reporting structure. In the wake of the reorganization announcement, some people have expressed concern that it will be harder for outsiders to evaluate how certain key products are performing. However, Hood said she and Microsoft are committed to making the company's financial performance clear to analysts, investors and the public in general.
Meanwhile, COO Kevin Turner said the company has a "balanced and diverse business" in terms of the customer segments it serves, the products it offers and the split in revenue between the U.S. and abroad.
Some critics maintain that Microsoft's product line is too diverse and that far from unifying the company, it would be wiser to make certain units more autonomous.
Microsoft officials didn't provide any information about the ongoing process to pick a replacement for Ballmer, who recently announced his intention to retire at some point in the next 12 months. Speculation about who may get picked has become a Silicon Valley pastime, and there are questions as to whether the replacement will get leeway in rethinking some of Ballmer's decisions, especially regarding the reorganization.
Of course, it wouldn't have been a Microsoft event if participants hadn't taken a few shots at Google. Turner said Office 365 has been taking business from Google Apps in part because customers have become distrustful of the way Gmail scans the text of email messages to serve ads and of Google's WiFi snooping scandal. (Google in turn routinely also reports on customers Google Apps has snatched from Microsoft.)
For his part, Ballmer said that Google's business practices "are worthy of discussion with competition authorities" and increasingly so, especially around the way the company bundles some of its products.
Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.