With all the news and speculation about Google building a collaborative Web Office of sorts, with a browser-based spreadsheet, word processor, email and calendar for starters, I wanted to get Microsoft's point of view on Web versus rich client Office suites. Can Web apps match the capababilities of desktop apps? What are the tradeoffs? Is Microsoft going to create lighter weight Web versions of Microsoft Office components?
I recorded a podcast with Antoine LeBlond, corporate vice president of Office Productivity Applications, who oversees the design, development and testing of Microsoft Office. The 17-year veteran also holds the rank of Distinguished Engineer at the company.
LeBlond maintained that desktop applications provide an opportunity to build richer software with a more finely-tuned interaction model than Web apps. "The browser does provide some great functionality for doing some manipulations, but in the end you are working in a sandbox environment," LeBlond said. He pointed to constraints that limit Web apps or make features difficult to implement, such as getting the right-click pop up menu to work well in AJAX or dealing with cut and paste operations (although Microsoft did introduce Live Clipboard to help manage that task).
LeBlond identified printing in Microsoft Word, with fine grained layout and typogrpahic controls, as a unique capability of rich client apps, as well as to compute-intensive charting capabilities in Office 2007, which he said are not suited to a time-shared environment. "It's hard to do something like that in script through a browser," he said.
I asked LeBlond if over time browser-based applications could handle some of the features that are currently best suited to desktop apps.
"At some point we should expect to see platforms that get built into browsers continue to get richer and richer...coming full circle to pushing more and more code onto the client, and in many ways it starts to look like a rich client application. The more complex and powerful these platforms get, the more difficult is is to have a completely compatible platform from browser to browser to browser," LeBlond said. He attributed that potential incompatibility to the natural effect of increasing complexity. That said, developers today are managing to support the two main browser platforms, Internet Explorer and Firefox.
On the subject of developing a suite of Web productivity apps, LeBlond doesn't see any demand coming from customers. He described Web apps as reduced functionality versions of the Microsoft productivity applications they have been using for years, and said that customers are not actively asking for them. He noted that Web-based productivity apps and competitors to Microsoft Office, such as OpenOffice.org, have been around for a while as well as AJAX-related technologies.
"No one ever self identifies as the person who only needs the reduced functionality....The truth is that there have been low or reduced functionality versions of all of our products for years and years, and they really don't get very much traction," LeBlond said. "That clearly points to the fact there really isn't much demand."
I asked LeBlond if he thought an inflection point had been reached, with more sophisticated use of AJAX and other technologies to more closely replicate the rich client experience, and if Microsoft would build lightweight Office applications (what LeBlond calls "reduction functionality" apps, which says a lot about Microsoft's perspective on the subject) for users who don't need the full richness of Microsoft Office.
His answer was no. "The need for functionality and what we are trying to do with the software doesn't change because of new technologies that are available," LeBlond said. He pointed to the spreadsheet size limits as an example of the kind problem users will run into with Web-based apps.
At the end of the 25 minute podcast we discussed what does keep him up at night--rolling out Office 2007. He talked about changes to the user interface and the impact of the new rendering engine.
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