I recently spoke to JotSpot CEO Joe Kraus, who you may recall was a co-founder of 90's search engine and portal Excite. Embrace Excel, don't force people to think differently. But then extend it... After discussing JotSpot's new vertical wiki products (separate write-up here), we talked about the Web Office - and how JotSpot aims to "embrace and extend" some of Microsoft's office products. At the end of this post, I do a bit of 'extending' of my own and bring Google into the picture.
In my Web Office Suite round-up a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned JotSpot Tracker as one of the contenders in the online spreadsheet category. I asked Joe to tell me the premise behind JotSpot and what he hopes to achieve with an online spreadsheet product. The aim, Joe said, is for JotSpot Tracker to "embrace and extend Excel". He explained:
"Our goal wasn't just to build Excel online. In fact I believe that Excel will be 'Excel Online'. Microsoft isn't dumb and they get this revolution about 'software as a service' much more than they got the Internet revolution. They're getting it much more quickly. So we believe where Tracker is headed is not only to embrace the capabilities of Excel - you've got to do that. But you've also got to extend it beyond what Excel is currently envisioned as today, in order to provide lasting value. Because otherwise I think you're going to get your lunch eaten, over time as Microsoft rolls in."
Joe Kraus at the Web 2.0 Conference, with Kim Polese
Joe then outlined how JotSpot Tracker came about and how firstly it embraces the capabilities of Excel:
"Half the usage of Excel is to track stuff. It's not about tons of formulas or complicated calculations, but 'I have a list of things that I want to track, I have a team of people I'm trying to co-ordinate'. For example sending a spreadsheet to your team for them to update the rows - then they send it back. We saw that use case hugely [in their research]."
Joe told me that lots of business people use Excel for CRM and project management, so the 'tracking' aspect is key to Excel usage in the workplace. An online spreadsheet then must 'embrace' as much as possible of this existing functionality of Microsoft Excel. Said Joe: "We try to operate as much like Excel as possible within the confines of this grid [meaning the online grid layout of JotSpot Tracker]."
Extending Excel to the Web
JotSpot then attempted to extend Excel's basic functionality in 3 ways:
1) Sharing - making spreadsheets available to people as either read/write or read only.
2) Every row is a wiki page - essentially meaning each row accommodates rich data types and has things such as version control; and
3) the ability to mashup data from your own hard drive with data on the Web. As Joe put it: "connecting your spreadsheet to the Web is really the idea."
MS Word and online word processing
I asked Joe Kraus if JotSpot has any plans to move into the online word processing market? After all, a wiki isn't that far removed from an online word processing system. But he is skeptical of that market, saying that "any place that you can't add value beyond just the simple fact that it's online and shared, I think is a risky proposition from a long-term business point-of-view." Moreover, the specter of Microsoft looms large over online word processing, in Joe's opinion:
"Microsoft is smart on this one and I think they're going to do some interesting stuff [in the online Office space] - especially with Word."
So no Web Office Suite then?
While it's not a stretch to imagine JotSpot covering all the Web Office tools in a suite of their own, this idea was pooh-poohed by Joe Kraus. Their vision is for DIY applications, rather than an office suite. Going back to the Excel/JotSpot Tracker example, Joe explained:
"I think the biggest proxy for people building applications today is what they do in Excel. It has many of the characteristics of a networked application - it's got data in it, the data is structured, it's networked (in that I send it out over email). People are building networked applications and they don't even know it. So the idea is - can we enable them to do just a little bit more..."
In the case of an online spreadsheet app, upcoming 'extensions' to JotSpot Tracker are notifications/alerts and 'views' (i.e. security and who is allowed to view or edit a spreadsheet or its rows). These are features that will extend the Web application functionality of Tracker.
The Embrace and Extend model
Joe summed up the Embrace and Extend model:
"Embrace Excel, don't force people to think differently. But then extend it into what people are really trying to do in Excel, which is building an application. That's the direction that Tracker is heading."
It is ironic that the 'embrace and extend' way of thinking is being used against Microsoft in this era of computing, albeit indirectly in the case of JotSpot. But you can be sure that bigger fish like Google will in time directly challenge Microsoft's supremacy of Office computing products, with the Web version of 'Embrace and Extend'. A lot of pundits have been quick to downplay Google's acquisition of Writely last week - and perhaps from a pure product angle they're correct. But look at the bigger picture and you'll see that web-based Office products can extend the functionality of desktop office products in many useful ways.
Joe Kraus recognizes the value of networked office applications, even if he's not willing to challenge Microsoft's near monopoly. Actually I too expect Microsoft to fully meet the challenges facing them in the (not too distant) future. Their 'software as a service' and 'Live' strategies are all about ensuring that if anyone is to extend office products to the Web, it's going to be them! The only question is: will Google let them? At the Web 2.0 Conference last October, Sergey Brin was asked whether Google will do a 'Google Office'. Brin's reply, as recorded by Dan Farber:
"I don't really think that the thing is to take a previous generation of technology and port them directly, and say can we do the minicomputer on the Web on AJAX makes sense. I'm not saying that's what [Microsoft] Office is, I'm just saying that I think the Web and Web 2.0, if that's what you want to call it, gives you the opportunity to do new and better things than the Office package and more. We don't have any plans [to do an office suite]."
Personally I think you can ignore the last sentence :-) The one I bolded makes it abundantly clear that Sergey Brin was saying then pretty much what Joe Kraus explained to me recently - it's all about embracing and extending office products for the Web.