Calling an app a service doesn't make it useful

By Michael Caton, PC Week Now that any application can be a service, there is an abundance of clever—but not necessarily useful—ideas.Take HalfBrain.

By Michael Caton, PC Week

Now that any application can be a service, there is an abundance of clever—but not necessarily useful—ideas.

Take HalfBrain.com's hosted spreadsheet, BrainMatter. The company has built a spreadsheet application using Dynamic HTML. It conforms to the 80-20 rule, which delivers 20 percent of the features that get used either 80 percent of the time or by 80 percent of spreadsheet users.

I think the application generally works well and recommend checking it out. Just be aware that it has bugs.

The best part of BrainMatter happens to be the community that could build up around it. Some sample spreadsheets that have been posted by other users, for figuring out the value of stock options or the cost of a car lease, could keep some coming back. Plenty of people can't be bothered with figuring out how to build a loan amortization spreadsheet themselves. They can go to HalfBrain to find one ready-made, but I don't think they will. Nor do I think they will throw out Excel, Works or Star-Office Calc and rush online every time they need to add up a column of numbers.

I'll concede the WebTV user as a potential customer, but with PC prices dropping, it's hard to envision an appliance without an embedded spreadsheet application. The better use of a hosted spreadsheet is as a business-to-business application. I see value in using this software as a tool to figure out the lease payments on a truck I just picked out on GM's Web site, rather than as a way to put my spreadsheets online and work on them from anywhere. To see how that's done, check out www.halfbrain.com/cgi-bin/article. cgi?id=200.01.10_smarty.

The whole enchilada
A whole suite of productivity applications would be a different story, though. Sure, there aren't a ton of people who need access to a whole suite of applications, but there are more of them than there are folks who need access to a spreadsheet alone.

Similarly, there is SpotOn, a half-product, half-service Web browser management tool from SpotOn. Frankly, I don't know what to make of this hybrid. In theory, what SpotOn does—compiling Web pages for touring, both personally and for collaboration—fits a need and makes incredible sense. But I can't think of any add-on to a Web browser—except multimedia players—that had any kind of shelf life.

The premise is simple: The software is a browser add-on that allows users to play back an Internet site or sites without having to deal with the tedium of navigating links. I'm not so certain that the service angle—the tours are stored on Spot On's servers and can be shared with other users—distinguishes it enough from previous-generation Web "players." I'd rather bypass the service and just cache content on my hard drive and tour it from there.

As with BrainMatter, the idea works better as part of a bigger service. I can definitely think of instances when I would want to take others on a Web tour as part of a presentation or training application or even keep a cache of certain sites that I can forward at will. That needs to be part of a bigger destination, though, such as an online presentation or training tool.

What productivity tools have you seen poorly translated into a service? TalkBack with your examples below: