Prior to the Thirty Years of Public Key Cryptography event at the Computer History Museum, I caught up with Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie. Of course, I asked him what his thinking was on delivering a full-blown Web office suite to compete with the likes of Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Zoho, ThinkFree and other upstart browser-based suites and applications.
From Ozzie’s response, Microsoft is not in a hurry to deliver a pure Web Office, nor does it have its head in the sand. “People have been trying to create applications with Web technology since the Web began," Ozzie said. "Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should. We are looking at Google Docs & Spreadsheets, and paying attention to Office 2.0 and Zoho. We are also putting those in front of customers and seeing what makes sense.”
Ozzie said that Microsoft taking a holistic view of how to proceed from a customer point of view, and modeling various user scenarios. The shift toward services is complementary to the rich client model, not a full scale replacement, he has said on several occasions.
"At the highest level--and I am really thinking at that level--we are in the productivity business. When I was a Lotus, I competed with Microsoft, and [at Microsoft] we have a well defined suite," Ozzie told me. "There are new scenarios, and as a company we want to deliver what people want. Some scenarios are about documents, some are with sharing and collaboration, others are standalone or with SharePoint, and some are Web-based back-ends with a rich front end and some components are pure Web. There are scenarios for high bandwidth, mobile or sitting in front of a large screen."
Ozzie pointed to Windows Live as using software and services that makes sense for some customer scenarios.
I probed a bit more on the topic of whether a tipping point had been reached for browser-based suites. Ozzie said that no announcement is forthcoming. However, I would guess that Microsoft busy coding browser-based Office components and could pull the trigger rapidly if it were deemed necessary to compete.Nonetheless, Microsoft could miss the window of opportunity, as it did in Web search, and have to play catch up in a category that is a major cash cow for the company. Developing the ultimate hybrid Office platform, beyond the forthcoming Office 2007, that accommodates all kinds online and offline of user scenarios could also take a long time versus the faster moving upstarts adding new features every few months and taking advantage of improvements in bandwidth and network reliability. And, there is the business model shift, from packaged software licenses to subscription fees and advertising, that causes consternation among the Microsoft bean counters.
For now, Microsoft takes the position that corporations aren’t going to play with browser-based suites and the company can maintain its dominant position by smartly integrating services into the Office suite over time. The pure Web Office suites today don't have the workflow, programmability and process integration required in larger enterprises.
But, for smaller businesses and individuals a free or modestly priced suite of browser-based software that can do most of what is required with documents, presentations, spreadsheets, messaging and collaboration is a compelling proposition. And, the features set, bandwidth and underlying technology, including for working offline, will continue to improve.
"With Live Clipboard we are working with a number of groups internally at Microsoft. Brian Dear supports it at eventful.com and it’s in Live Writer. It’s not taking the world by storm yet. SSE is a very strong bet for a framework for Web-based synchronization on top of RSS. There is no one synchronization solution, but SSE is a really good technology and is making more progress than Live Clipboard," Ozzie said. SSE was recently used as a "poor man's EAI," according to Ozzie, for synchronizing software from Microsoft, Google, IBM and others for Strong Angel III, a six-day test and demonstration focused on innovations around disaster response for local and global catastrophes.