Reclaiming the meaning of Office

Reclaiming the meaning of Office

Summary: The killer collaborative applications of Web 2.0 will look nothing like Microsoft Office, which was designed for people working alone in cubicles.

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TOPICS: Apps
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I was glad to see last week that Sun president Jonathan Schwartz agrees with my analysis that the desktop PC is history, making Microsoft's dominance of the platform irrelevant. But then of course he went and spoilt it by assuming that everything gets sucked up into the cloud onto Sun servers. At least people are starting to realize something I've been saying for the past five years: clients are in the cloud too. We're talking about distributed computing here, after all. That means computing will take place wherever it makes best sense for it to happen, and some of the time that will be on the client device too — as reinforced by developments like Ajax.

But while Ajax is good for many things, all these wannabe Web 2.0 killer app vendors who are coming out with rich-client versions of Office applications really are missing the point. I suppose if the cloud is everywhere, then it's inevitable there's going to be a lot of foggy thinking about, but let me see if I can just cut through the mist here.

For a start, people are being misled by Microsoft's Office brand name, which is a complete misnomer. OK, you use the applications at work, in the office. But it would probably have been more accurate (if less catchy) to call the suite Microsoft Cubicle. There's a reason applications like Word, PowerPoint and Excel all used to be grouped under the catch-all of 'personal productivity applications'-- they're designed to increase the productivity of individual people working in isolation.

That's why it was always absurd, as with any conventional desktop application, to deliver Office over an Internet link using terminal server software, which many unfortunate early ASPs used to do. In fact, thinking back to those days, let's add the name Halfbrain.com to the list of companies developing web-hosted Office rivals. These guys used HTML and JavaScript to create a web-hosted spreadsheet, word processor and presentation builder, except that they developed it and put it online back in 1999.

What the Halfbrain team did was way ahead of its time (the spreadsheet was even multiuser). It got killed off by over-greedy venture capital investors who didn't see the dot-com crash coming. As I described in a series of postings to my Loosely Coupled blog in July of last year, the company got bought by Alphablox, which in turn was acquired last year by IBM, while several of its developers went on to found Oddpost, the Gmail precursor that Yahoo! bought. In a revealing follow-up posting, IBMer Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah described his work in porting the Halfbrain/Alphablox technology to the Mozilla (now Firefox) browser platform to provide a set of "Simple Browser Productivity Components" in IBM's WebSphere Portal.

How come such far-sighted technology ended up somewhere in WebSphere as a set of cute browser utilities? That's the best outcome any of these 'Office killer' applications can hope for.

If I want to sit down at a computer and compose a letter or report, analyze data in a spreadsheet, or create a presentation, then I really don't want the Web to intrude (in fact, come to think of it, what I'm doing now is precisely an example of that. I wouldn't dream of writing this article online in my browser: I use Notepad to craft what I'm going to say, and then paste it into the blogging application when I'm ready to do my final edit — including looking up the hyperlinks — prior to posting the article). When it's just me as an individual using the computer as an aid to my personal creativity, I want the computer to act as a seamless extension of my mind. I don't want to have to pause my stream of consciousness while some router somewhere falls over midway through delivering a screen refresh or some dumb suggestion to 'improve' my grammar.

The singular exception is Outlook, which Microsoft grafted onto Office when groupware was all the rage in the mid-1990s, and we users have been paying the penalty ever since. Outlook is a great illustration of why personal productivity applications don't mix with collaborative applications. Word is complete overkill for composing emails — just as much as it is for blog postings. Microsoft has made a pig's ear of the implementation too, something I am reminded of every time I am forced to use Word to edit Outlook emails and am confronted with the idiocy that there's no way of enforcing consistency in menu layouts between the two instances of Word. But don't get me started on that now ...

Where the Web comes into its own is in collaborative applications, such as jointly authoring a report or an article or designing a presentation in co-operation with a virtual team of domain experts. Before we had the Internet, of course, people used to congregate in offices for the precise purpose of performing this kind of collaboration. That's why I say Microsoft's suite would be more accurately named Cubicle. It was originally developed with no collaborative capabilities whatsoever, and whatever capabilities have subsequently been grafted on are pretty lamentable on the whole, up to and including SharePoint. The product thus bears little or no relation to the true concept of offices as people experience and use them in the real world.

That's why I say that anyone who emulates Microsoft Office in an attempt to build the killer collaborative application suite of Web 2.0 is on a hiding to nothing. Workers who do a lot of work in isolation will most likely continue to use Windows and Office. The rest of us will use a completely new generation of applications that automate collaboration and integration rather than isolated individual endeavors. Whatever Microsoft has historically found success with on the cubicle-bound desktop is irrelevant to what is going to succeed in the collaborative, virtual workspaces of the Web 2.0 era.

Topic: Apps

Phil Wainewright

About Phil Wainewright

Since 1998, Phil Wainewright has been a thought leader in cloud computing as a blogger, analyst and consultant.

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10 comments
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  • Death of PC predicted again... film at eleven.

    Ain't gonna happen. I remember when people talked about the "Network Computer" which promised to bring back the glory days of the DEC terminal, but with wizzy-wow... stuff, or whatever.

    People like computers. They are used to them. Yes, its cool that you can jog with an iPod, or send emails with a Blackberry, but devices are only going to fill niche tasks, and only a handful of them.

    The computer is here to stay. Get used to it, because it ain't going anywhere - and never does every time some new Cassandra pines for it.
    Mac_PC_FenceSitter
    • and film at 12, 1, 2, 3

      I don't know how many times the "the death of PC" is going to be announced. Interesting, it always usually Sun involved in it. Some companies and some people really hate PCs and love big iron.

      Unfortunately, they did not make as many bazillions as Wintel, so I guess it makes them happy to keep predicting it's dead.

      The worst part of it is how condescending and offensive all this stuff is to the millions of small businesses and individuals that depend on PC's and the billions globally hoping to join that.

      Phones are getting more like PC's, not more like dumb terminals. That's what these supposed future seers fail to realize. The PC on phone is here at the high end complete with OS, local storage, 3D video card, speakers. Soon that will be low-end and $500 phones with 40GB HD etc will be common. SOAS, Web Services, Web 2 are all just extensions of PC and Servers.

      PC's, whatever size and shape, are growing exponentially and show zero signs of abating.

      Network speeds will never outpace local storage and server storage will always cost more than local. That means for most of planet earth, the PC paradigm is faster and cheaper than network, even if it a "cloud".
      svanvuuren9
  • Who wants two wordprocessors

    The problem with your approach is that the same person
    does the same job (e.g. write a manual) alone sometimes
    and collaboratively sometimes. I don't want to learn two
    separate word processors, one for collaboration and one
    for work alone. On the other hand I don't want to be
    burdened by collaboration features when I work alone. I
    also don't want to learn different collaboration tools, one
    for word processing and one for drawing.

    So what I want is some way to have my work alone tools
    and way to embed those tools in a collaboration tool.
    LouS
  • The missing link

    Whether it be appliance or PC, not that there's that much difference anymore, the missing link is integration. What I really want is to be able to compose on my word processor, have it save to my local drive, and when I'm done right click on the document and decide if this is a printed letter, email, IM, blog entry or some combination thereof. Heaving all that text from one app to the next with copy/paste just seems insane.

    What's lacking is something to unify the input. Same with spreadsheets. Share it on my local machine or post it to a web site and share it, then email the URL to everyone on my collaborate list.

    I'm still waiting for that. Seamless integration between the web and my desktop. And if the internet connection isn't there, it still saves it locally and syncs up when the connection is restored.

    We're building a really big web-based CRM system for a customer in the midwest. My idea was to have an XML record buffer for background downloads and record updates. So the user would never have to click a submit button. But none of the existing technologies, not even .NET, give you that functionality. We're still trapped in round-trip hell for web apps. Overall, I think Linux has the best chance of getting us there than Windows. Windows is steeped in that history of desktop/web browswer distinction. The lone productive user and web apps. What we need is something in between that works just as smoothly in either world or both.
    Chad_z
    • A suggestion

      Re: "What I really want is to be able to compose on my word processor, have it save to my local drive, and when I'm done right click on the document and decide if this is a printed letter, email, IM, blog entry or some combination thereof."

      I agree, that would be nice.

      Re: "We're building a really big web-based CRM system for a customer in the midwest. My idea was to have an XML record buffer for background downloads and record updates. So the user would never have to click a submit button. But none of the existing technologies, not even .NET, give you that functionality. We're still trapped in round-trip hell for web apps."

      I think what you're talking about is just the way web apps. work. Everything happens in round-trips. Yes, there's AJAX, but it's a hack and rather hard to implement.

      I think what you're talking about with the CRM app. would be better suited to a thick or smart client app. You have a lot more flexibility in how the display gets updated, and when you do or do not want to access the network.
      Mark Miller
  • Never alone.

    If you're right, then people are going to suffer psychologically.

    You wrote:
    Workers who do a lot of work in isolation will most likely continue to use Windows and Office. The rest of us will use a completely new generation of applications that automate collaboration and integration rather than isolated individual endeavors.

    Your phrasing says collaboration will be constant, that people will never be alone to develop ideas and presentations.


    Though "smart growth" is now advocated, the suburbs were advocated in earlier times because people were found able to be more relaxed and inventive, less streassed, when not crowded.
    Even cubicles, bad as they are, are supposed to be an improvement over an entirely open floor plan when work is supposed to include reflection.

    Are you sure that what you said is what you intended?
    Anton Philidor
  • look at it again from the top

    Word is used in the following ways:

    1. as an email editor
    = absurd

    2. for writing letters/faxes (does anyone do this anymore???)
    = CRMs are *much* better at this than even any kind of Outlook/Word wizard. If salesforce.com gets cheap, or yahoo/gmail/hotmail add CRM features (they've got contacts and calendars already), then they could take over this. I think letters and faxes are losing out to email these days though.

    3. for writing documents
    XML editors and XML document fragment repositories are expensive, but also I feel the user interface could be conjoined better, and vastly more transparent (the user needs to know nothing about XML) and simple editing could be effected. Even the design of the transformation to PDF could be simplified vastly.
    This could be a standalone_client, or client/server app or browser/webserver app, all would work equally well I think. (including an integrated object based drawing package).

    4. for writing short non-reusing documents for journalistic work.
    Probably notepad is best since copy and paste into a publishing system most often removes font/emphases etc.

    Excel could be replaced with something more like a simple version of SAS, something that knows something about your data, and can easily analyse it for you without you having to write formulae etc. I'm a bit hazy on this idea, but it could be useful to have some sort of wizard or project, where the program would aid you (for example) design a statistically significant test first.
    This could include "if I test these financial figures and try to see a trend, will it have statistical significance (or could it be noise)".
    Point it at the data, give some information about the data. Maybe the program could look for correlation with all sorts of market trends in the background. (Hey we sold a lot more wetwipes when it was warm and people were eating more oranges).


    In terms of documentation, word is a tool that works (I use it too), but I know better solutions could exist for Documentation (and CRM).
    I think a better tool than excel could be designed. Where data sets are identified at import time, and kept seperate (maybe a lot of regular numberic stuff like webstats could have automatic metadata inserted). You could graphically build relationships between the blobs of data (more like a flowchart), making data update and graphing automatic.

    Anyway, my two cents.
    hipparchus2000
    • Outlook already can be used on the web

      and more companies and institutions are starting to use it.
      John Zern
      • i saw this demonstrated by MS in '98. how does this relate

        I really can't see how your post relates to mine.
        hipparchus2000
  • Halfbrain memories. The first web spreadsheet

    I was VP of Marketing at Halfbrain. As I look through our old business plans and presentations, I feel so proud of the engineering team. Back then our tagline was, "The Web IS the Application". We were a bit premature and anxious to find a buyer in that crazy month of March 2000, We should have stuck it out, kept our small, 8 person company, and pushed through. It was a great experience nonetheless. Your memory is great; we were purchased by Alphablox and they were purchased my IBM. And were is that spreadsheet. Beats me.
    djmnsf