It seems that a tipping point, or at least an new level of awareness, has been reached about the next Web frontier--a new generation of desktop productivity applications (think Microsoft Office without all the bits on your machine) with rich, interactive client interfaces and low-cost administration. They are built using technologies like AJAX, Flash and Java, with all the logic on the server and using XML and Web service bindings. Some of the features in browser-based apps--Web mail, wikis, blogging tools, hosted CRM--and Web apps like Google Earth, are good examples of the trend, but now dozens of startups are delivering on the Web the core functionality and rich client interfaces of the Office staples--word processing, spreadsheets, presentation, info management, messaging, calendaring and all kinds of mash-ups.
Richard MacManus' post, "The Web-based Office will have its day," makes the case for a Web Office someday, and lists a bunch of Internet apps, such as Writely (the Web word processor), Zimbra (e-mail/calendaring, which I wrote about here), BaseCamp (project management) and gOffice, which is developing an Office suite and chose a name that gives it some association with Google (I guess they want to make it convenient if Google were to buy the company). In addition, there are toolkits that are making it easier to develop the rich Web apps. Zimbra has an open source AJAX Toolkit (AjaxTK) and Bindows and Morfik look like serious development tools.
The question I have is how will Microsoft respond, given how the apps will tread on the high-profit Office territory.
Most corporate users aren't going to throw Office overboard any time soon, however. StarOffice 8 (eWeek review here) is more of a threat today than the coming barrage of AJAXed apps. In addition, using AJAX or other Web technologies to duplicate the more sophisticated functionality of Office, OpenOffice and StarOffice 8 in a browser environment could be tricky, given performance requirements and the current lack of stable, mature development environments today.
Microsoft has combined MSN and the Windows Client, Server and Tools groups into a single division, so at least the company seems to acknowledge that the Web (MSN) and applications have to converge more over time. Mary Jo Foley of Microsoft Watch reports that Microsoft is prepping a hosted small business collaboration bundle that includes e-mail, instant messaging, VoIP and data-conferencing.
On another front, many users and developers don't see the point of waiting years between upgrades versus the incremental development (a perpetual hovering between beta and non-beta) that the current wave of Web apps from Google, Yahoo and the coming hordes employ. As Google's Adam Bosworth says, the more effective software design model is "intelligence reaction," not "intelligent design." At some point, with broadband and always on connectivity, the need for large client application footprints and replication will go away. Call it the age of cloud computing, Web 3.0, service infrastructure or whatever, but it is changing the way software is built and delivered, and user expectations. And, it's fundamentally disruptive to those with traditional packaged software franchises and multi-year upgrade cycles.