Learning from past Web Office mistakes

Learning from past Web Office mistakes

Summary: One of the outcomes of my recent round-up of Web Office products was a plethora of email from vendors who are building them. Thanks for all those emails and I apologize if I haven't replied (there were a lot!

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TOPICS: Microsoft
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One of the outcomes of my recent round-up of Web Office products was a plethora of email from vendors who are building them. Thanks for all those emails and I apologize if I haven't replied (there were a lot!), but I will look at all the products. Dave Winer's 2000 call for no data lock-in and Anil Dash's renewed call for interop are relevant now more than ever One or two people also pointed out that they'd tried developing Web Office products in a previous dot com life, but for various reasons were unsuccessful. Anil Dash has an excellent post highlighting the previous waves of Web Office applications, most of which were consigned to history by Microsoft Office.

According to Anil, not much has changed. He thinks the current wave of Web Office products are still missing vital pieces like interop and decent UIs. He noted:

"...we don't have much beyond copy and paste right now. If I want to put a NumSum or JotSpot spreadsheet into a Writeboard document, I basically can't do it. Maybe I can do it if all the apps are made by the same vendor and are made available as part of a suite, but we had that with Halfbrain seven years ago.

Now, nobody really adopted the interop specs for embedding rich objects between apps when there was the chance to do this on the desktop fifteen years ago. And this was part of the reason Microsoft Office was able to so completely dominate on the Windows platform by the mid-90s."

Anil wants to see more interop between current Web Office vendors - and I totally support that notion. Indeed he singled out my list of best-of-breed Web Office apps to lead the charge and create open standards for data interop. That would be Google, Writely, NumSum, iRows, 30 Boxes, CalendarHub, 37Signals, Zimbra.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that Google is best positioned to lead an open standards interop effort. They have the most to gain by unsettling Microsoft's monopoly of the Office market and I don't think they'd be too concerned with letting some of the small fry companies get a piece of the action. Or maybe they have plans for an interop standard for their own Suite - but not the others. I hope they don't go down that route.

Note that the technical term for this (as Anil pointed out) is "compound document", which the Wikipedia defines as:

"...a document type typically produced using word processing software, and is a regular text document intermingled with e.g. spreadsheets, pictures, digital videos, digital audio, and other multimedia features."

Microsoft uses Object linking and embedding (OLE) to enable data transfer across its Office products. Apple tried to do it with OpenDoc in the early 90's, but it was plagued with problems and ultimately was killed off in 1997. As Steve Jobs put it at the time: "We put a bullet in its head".

So obviously what we need is an open standards Web version of OLE or Apple's OpenDoc.

Lastly, Anil pointed to an old Dave Winer post from March 2000 - almost exactly 6 years ago - which described the state of the art of Web Office back then. Anil noted:

"It reads an awful lot like Richard's review, only now we have feeds on everything and there actually seem to be some users."

Reading over Dave's list from 2000 makes for wistful reading. For example here's his description of halfbrain.com:

"Next we switched from Dan Bricklin demoing a text tool, to Steve Guttman of Halfbrain.Com demoing a web-based spreadsheet. It was stunning. Man that looks like a spreadsheet! And it's connected to the Internet, you can include realtime stock quotes in formulas, and they recalc. Oh this is so nice. It looks and behaves like Excel but it's DHTML. It so closely mimics Excel that you can hardly tell you're in a Web browser, but the title at the top of the window confirms that you are. We also got a sneak peak at their presentation tool, of course it looks and behaves like PowerPoint, but in DHTML. This is the stuff Microsoft wanted when MSIE 4.0 shipped, a couple of years ago."

Whatever happened to halfbrain.com? They merged with a company called AlphaBlox in 2000 to "create a powerful platform for building a new generation of connected Web-based information applications and services for corporate, portal and individual users." AlphaBlox was acquired by IBM in 2004.

In any case, Dave Winer's 2000 call for no data lock-in and Anil's renewed call for interop are relevant now more than ever. If the Web Office circa 2006 is going to take off, we need forward thinking - and open platforms.

Topic: Microsoft

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