Could Web-based PowerPoint-killers be the last straw for MS-Office?

Could Web-based PowerPoint-killers be the last straw for MS-Office?

Summary: By way of an entry on Bob Sutor's blog, I found CNET editor Rafe Needleman talking about the various entries in the marketplace that could eventually serve as Web-based replacements for PowerPoint.  Microsoft is already getting some pressure on the word processing and spreadsheet fronts (particularly now that Socialtext has taken on Dan Bricklin and his WikiCalc innovation under its open source wing).

TOPICS: Browser

By way of an entry on Bob Sutor's blog, I found CNET editor Rafe Needleman talking about the various entries in the marketplace that could eventually serve as Web-based replacements for PowerPoint.  Microsoft is already getting some pressure on the word processing and spreadsheet fronts (particularly now that Socialtext has taken on Dan Bricklin and his WikiCalc innovation under its open source wing).  Should Web-based PowerPoint replacement get any traction, the implications for Office could be serious.  Said Rafe (and I agree):

Everybody on the Net knows that Google is gunning for the heart of Microsoft's Office business, with its online word processor, Writely, and its spreadsheet, Google Spreadsheets. But Microsoft's most vulnerable application is PowerPoint, since it's used so much by business travelers (who might appreciate not having to lug their own computer around) and because easy access to online presentations could revolutionize sales....Google isn?t yet talking about its PowerPoint killer, but a few startups, like Zoho, Structured Data, and ThinkFree, are testing products that show us what a presentation service will look like online.

But Rafe also zeros in one of the big gotchas that will most definitely slow the acceptance of browser-based applications until something is done about it.  It's affectionately known as the offline problem and if you've been following this blog at all, then you already know that I write about it quite a bit. Wrote Rafe:

A challenge with all these products is that while they will be great for users who can be online to make presentations, things change if you find yourself offline, with nothing but a laptop and a projector between you and your audience.

Given my personal interest in seeing the offline problem solved, my feeling is that you can't have enough editors and bloggers out there talking about how it might get solved.  So, I took the liberty of writing a letter to the editor (in this case, Rafe).  It didn't have to go far since we both work for CNET Networks.  There are a few experiments taking place out there that may solve the offline problem. Although I've covered this ground before, I think its worth repeating in bigger picture terms that might appeal to a broader audience. 

There are a few experiments taking place out there, very early prototyping but there is promise, that may solve the offline problem.  One of these uses JavaDB, Sun's version of Apache's Derby project. The other -- known as Dojo.Storage -- relies on Adobe's Flash technology.  There may be others that I don't know about.  The questions for a browser-based app that could go "Web-less" at any time for any reason (loss of connectivity, or you're in a plane, etc.) is (1) where do I fetch my instructions from (basically, HTML pages, probably with some Javascript on them) and (2) where does the data (documents, form data, whatever) go when I press the submit button?

So, storage is part of the issue. However you decide to solve the storage problem, it'll have to be like support for HTML.  Everywhere there's a browser (your PC, a public kiosk, etc.), you'll need the necessary support. Nothing is in place today. Or is it?

Most places we go, browsers obviously have some sense of storage or "persistence."  For example, in some sort of cache they're storing cookies and history (the back button).  Something else that might be present locally plug-ins or the their equivalent.  Given its prevalence on the Web, most browsers (not all) are configured to handle Flash. How this is done at an appliance driven Web terminal, I don't exactly know.  But the point is that people who are putting terminals out there also know that pure HTML support isn't enough. It has to support a few common plug-ins that users often need to use Web pages and that you find on most PCs. The three most prevalent plug-ins (as far as I can tell) are Flash, Java, and Acrobat Reader (not necessarily in that order).  By their very design, Flash and Java both have a need to cache instructions and content.  So, in both cases, you have a highly programmable environment with access to some sort of  persistence mechanism (some sort of storage) for caching.

This is where the work on Web-less apps is taking place.  People are trying to figure out how to take the persistence capabilities in both Flash and Java, and instead of using that persistence just to handle whatever Flash or Java app you're running, it could be used to store Web pages (for fetching when offline) and user data (for submitting when offline).  The "storage driver" (and I use that term loosely) which is the piece of software that says "oh, the end user just pressed the submit button, hand the data to me and I'll store it in whatever cache I have access to" is written in Flash or Java (depending on which of the two environments is being used). 

The next natural step is to figure how to turn something more dynamic, like a USB-based thumb drive, into the persistence mechanism that such a Flash- or Java-based storage driver uses to handle the persistence of anything that may have to last until the next session or whenever a connectivity returns (cookies, history, the Web pages that normally drive your Web-apps, the data you create with those Web-apps, etc.).  This way, you can take you're computing environment with you, on a thumbdrive.  All you'd have to do is plug it in anywhere you go, and voila, there's you're entire browser-based computing environment just the way you last left it.  Even better, let's say the next place you plug your thumb drive into has a connection to the Internet.  Then, any data that needs to synch into the cloud synchs (imagine your offline authored Typepad blogs going to Typepad, your updates to a WikiCalc spreadseet going to the right WikiCalc spreadsheet, or  the emails you composed for Gmail automatically flowing through your Gmail outbox).

I describe this a bit in (and try clicking through to other links) my recent coverage of Google's Browser Sync software.  GBS is actually somewhat of a precursor to this world in that it's moving some of what you'd want to persist on your thumbdrive (cookies, history, passwords, etc.) to other storage areas or persistence mechanisms.  This isn't as many steps away as it seems from the aforementioned solutions to the offline problem.

Topic: Browser

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  • Web based replacement of PowerPoint???

    In yer dreams maybe. I've seen lots of PowerPoint wanna be's (Open Office, Apples' wanna be, etc.) and they all suck. And now someone thinks they can do it on the web? Buwahahahaha
    • "they all suck"

      Funny 'bout that -- I've run blind tests with several presentation tools (MSPowerPoint, OpenOffice Impress, Flash, Acrobat Reader) and the audience can't tell the difference most of the time.

      The few times that they [b]could[/b] tell that one was different, it was because MSPowerPoint borks up formatting when the presentation moves between computers.

      By far the most consistently good results came with Acrobat Reader. Always crystal-clear, always "what you designed is what you get," etc. Admittedly lacking in animations, but according to survey those are more popular with presenters than with audiences.

      If you want animations, use Flash. Otherwise, use PDF.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
      • Really???

        So you can do animations, call other apps, use video, tie into your data base for real time information, secure them with IRM, and all the dozens of things you can do with PPT? Not a friggin chance.

        If you want dumb static words on a screen that do nothing, use NotePad and an overhead projector...
        • Ask a hard one, would you?

          [i]So you can do animations,[/i]

          Of course.

          [i]call other apps,[/i]

          Of course -- assuming you're willing to accept the security issues.

          [i]use video,[/i]

          Of course. This is old hat.

          [i]tie into your data base for real time information,[/i]

          Ancient history.

          [i]secure them with IRM,[/i]

          That's a Microsoft trademark -- and it's about as secure as changing text to black on black.

          If you want security, you need to use encryption.

          [i]and all the dozens of things you can do with PPT?[/i]

          I admit that the virus propagation features are missing.

          [i]Not a friggin chance.[/i]

          Keep telling yourself that.
          Yagotta B. Kidding
          • LMAO!! So true....

            >>I admit that the virus propagation features are missing.<<
          • Call me 5 years, we'll see.

            Personally I don't think it will ever get off the ground beyond an experiment.
          • No need

            [i]Call me 5 years[/i]

            You're obviously more mature than that. Maybe not much, but your spelling is better than most 5yos'.
            Yagotta B. Kidding
          • d@mn you're ignorant

            You've been clearly out-posted in this forum!!

            What is it you like to say?


      • DRM and font embedding...

        Most problems I've had with PowerPoint "borking" up formatting with presentations between computers had to do with fonts. You need to embed fonts for compatibility on other machines. With newer versions of PowerPoint, it wants licenses for the fonts or it refuses to embed them. So DRM rears it's ugly head again and screws PowerPoint up now. Get licenses or stick to hideous but ubiquitous fonts like Times New Roman. Yuck.
    • Have you used Apple's?

      It's pretty slick.
      tic swayback
      • Apple stopped short of offering an Office replacement

        I think to keep peace with Microsoft. After all it's better for Apple to
        have MS Office for Mac than make their own. Still, I bet there's at
        least a beta release of a great Office replacement sitting in a
        Cupertino lock box waiting for the day Microsoft cancels Office for
    • Again, the average presentation is pretty simple. Slide with text, pictures

      fancy backgrounds, an animation every now and then. Any of them do the trick, and the simpler the better.
      • So what No Ax is referring to.... maybe 1%, 2% of the market. Seems the other applications would be fine for the vast majority who don't need all the bells and whistles he's touting.
        tic swayback
      • What about bandwidth?

        I agree with this. However, since PowerPoint presentations obey Sturgeon's Law (90% of the entire population space is crud), what is more important is that such simplicity is the key to <i>effective</i> presentations. Effectiveness comes from the right combination of <i>le mot juste</i> and <i>l'image juste</i>.

        Now the good news is that, as image Web search keeps getting better, we can begin to wean ourselves away from the Microsoft Clip Art library. (But do we?) Then we need to ask: If everyone who used to use PowerPoint is now pasting JPEG images onto slides and then juggling size properties so that the text and the image are just right, will our "bandwidth to burn" support this new source of traffic? Given that my Web-based mail service can be less responsive than I like, am I really going to tolerate such lack of responsiveness when I need to get my presentation done on time?

        Then, of course, there is the dirty little secret: We all appropriate material from old presentations when making new ones. How easy will it be to browse and cherry-pick from my library of past presentations in a Web-based operation? Again, how good with the responsiveness be?

        My guess is that we are dealing with a classic example of be-careful-what-you-wish-for. I am old enough to remember what it was like using some "interactive" software on heavily-used time-sharing systems. Remember that old saw about ignoring history and repeating it (not to mention Marx' corollary that what was tragedy the first time around emerges as farce the second)!
        • The web gets faster and more reliable every day. We should not stand around

          waiting for everything to be perfect before we dabble in on-line spreadsheets and other applications. The smart companies will have this perfected in 5 years when the web is much faster and more reliable. But, event with the speed and reliability of the web right NOW, there are still a lot of good reasons to use online applications.
          • Ask the person who uses one

            I currently use online applications. They remind me of when I used to run all of my applications on a time-sharing system. That means that I have learned how to get what I want, but I have also learned a lot of habits for protection when things go wrong. I am sure things will get better (even if they never improved that all much back in the time-sharing days). I doubt they will be "perfected in 5 years," no matter how much smarts go into the system development. Will the Web be faster and more reliable? I sure hope so. How much will Web improvement depend on all that activity on the banks of the Columbia River? Will the Columbia River become even more important to national security than the Mississippi Delta is?
      • Well if that's the case..

        Why switch from what you have if it works for you, for something else that may not? A

        If you're getting Office anyway, wouldn't it be easier to get it with PP, instead of getting a hodge-podge of programs that won't interact as well?
        John Zern
    • What can you do on ppt and NOT on a WEB page?

      • Alot.

        But only from the standpoint that creating a ppt presentation is as easy as working in a Word compared to building something in html.
        John Zern
        • that's BS: use the PPT editor and let it generate HTML + CSS etc.

          Why do you need YET another binary format ?