In pursuit of the zero-footprint Office

In pursuit of the zero-footprint Office

Summary: 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.

TOPICS: Microsoft

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.

Topic: Microsoft

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  • Yes, and the entrenched interests can't

    control it or delay technologies. People are tired of waiting for improvements or things they want. They don't want to wait on companies while they milk their revenue streams out of "good enough" products (sunk costs).
  • Well, if you want to pay the monthly broadband cost,

    Go right ahead.

    It's kinda obvious the 'industry' is moving in this direction.

    But all the people who will lose their livelihoods because of web-based everything, do you care that they will end up eating bugs and dirt - or die trying?

    Oh, speaking of costs, this web-based stuff will only ensure an increase and just as constant stream of "revenue" for microsoft. Stop payin' and you stop usin'. I wonder how the Chinese and Indians will pirate their way around this, for that's where all the jobs are heading anyway.

    Let me know when you lose your job.
    • The push is not in the way of

      broadband. But rather in-house web based apps.

      The apps will be served up on a company's LAN based Web server. However, with broadband, company pesonnel will be able to use the same web based apps from the road.

      I believe web based apps are the future. Bloatware like MS Office will soon be the exception and not the rule. Especially with the push towards cheaper PC's. With web based apss, the price of a PC can come way down. Better hardware with less software = better PC's for less money.
      • Cheaper PCs? NOT!

        At this point, I don't see computers, at least the bottom end, getting any cheaper; unless of course they started giving them away for free, or as an incentive to switch to a company's web suite. And realistically, the bottom end would be all you needed for a web-based suite of office services. From a reliability standpoint, we need a moderately equal mix of web- and PC- based apps; not all one or all the other. People who live in rural areas, even if they do have a web connection of some sort, are very familiar with network slowness, and outages - the bane of any web-based application idea. I live 60 minutes from Boston, have a broadband connection and still lose connectivity due to other than my own reasons far too frequently to rely on some internet-based company to supply me with an office productivity suite.
  • Only time will tell

    Even if this stuff comes, I'd give it at least 10-20 or so years before it's a viable competitor to MS Office.

    By then, AJAX could be outdated by other technologies.

    And I honestly don't think JavaScript's up to the task of creating full-size applications such as Office.

    And if everything's going to go to the NC & SaaS as ZDNet claims, then keep an eye on Java and C#. Both languages are perfectly capable of displaying information on some sort of front end (which can look like a regular Windows application, or a webpage if need be) while all the data processing is done on the server. In other words, both are suitable for the NC / SaaS model.

    Both are also capable of solving the caching problem that NC computing has to overcome - I know Java is capable of dynamic class loading (and I'm sure C# has something similar), so it's perfectly feasible to send the required components over the network which are needed for offline access.

    So - the question is: What does AJAX do that can't be done with Java or C#?
  • Not yet...

    Until connecting to specific sites on the Web is as relaible as turning my computer on, I'm not going there. No matter where I am (work, home, "hotspot," etc.) I can still get a "site not found" error far more frequently than I get an "application has caused an error and will now close" error with my locally-installed apps, not to mention the response time, even when working on a broadband connection. And when I'm working on my home wireless LAN, it's even more frustrating, particularly in terms of response time, since I am limited in my transmitter/receiver options (I'm not going to buy all new high-dollar equipment just to save money on a Web-based application).

    And, what's the use of getting a zero-footprint Web application when the only computers you can buy have ultra-fast processors and humongous hard drives (and if even they aren't big enough, you can purchase a terabyte of extra HD storage for about $250 [okay, so it's multiple drives, that will change soon enough] or the same in DVD disks for about $50 [940 GB, to be more precise]).

    One more thing, I'd rather see major, infrequent upgrades, especially when the UI is involved, than incremental, frequent upgrades, because I don't want to have to relearn my way-of-working every other week (or day). This old dog can learn new tricks, but he doesn't want to have to be doing that all the time.
    • Don't hold your breath

      This has been promised for at least 30 years. Probably longer but I'm not that old. So, don't get your hopes up.
  • Have you priced hard-drives and CPU's lately?

    The incredibly low costs of these storage and resource related hardware items have made the necessity of a zero-footprint Office obsolete.
    • re:Have you priced hard-drives and CPU's lately?

      Cheap drives, cpu's etc. make the local office machine even easier to get.
  • Zero-footprint Office

    How will Microsoft Respond?
    Are you kidding, or just setting us up (like a straight man, of sorts)? Miscosoft wants to rule the world (of computing). It would be just playing into their hands, to go to Online server based Applications - I am saying this, but I also prefer their programs and windows envionment. Microsoft - at a distance, but good on my local PC and server. Another thing - as time goes by, the Internet is getting more open to the world.
    Who, in their right frame of mind, would put their sensitive data on some distant server, to be accessed via the Internet. How long would it remain unaccessed by the world - think about this - I mean sincerly - and don't pretend to fool yourselfe (or the rest of us)....and if you still agree that this is the way of the future, I will forward you some links that constantly appear in my spam server, so that you can supply (update?) your banking info online.
    • Zero-footprint Office not quite

      Several issues here. Just because the app is on the net, does not mean that your files are stored on some remote server. They can still be stored locally. This also does not mean that your app will be on the net either. Lot's of companies would like to reduce their hardware costs and replacement cycle. An in-house web app office on company servers would help with this. All apps and files would be contained on company servers. Workstations would have a much longer lifespan as they do not need to be upgraded with the latest OS and storage for apps.
      A local OS would not be needed either, as many non MS OSs will boot from a net server (PXE).
      A slimmed Linux with a browser would fit this bill nicely and reduce desktop hardware and software support to nill.
      Just think of the possibilities!
  • And we'll all be using mass transit too

    How long has this "desktop killer" prediction been around? It's old. Really old. It's like predicting mass transit will kill cars; people want the freedom of their own car or a computer, not some mass system that's out of their control. And they'll even spend two to three times as much to have it.

    Speaking of which, try to use your "Cloud Computing" on the train, plain, or bus. Right.