On the eve of what looks to be a major Microsoft productivity products year in 2010 with the Windows 7 operating system, Exchange 2010, Office 2010, MOSS/SharePoint 2010 and Azure it's interesting to look at how the market for these products serve has changed.
The Microsoft business division produces the 'Office' suite - the Word word processor, Access personal relational database application, the Excel spreadsheet program, Outlook (Windows-only groupware, frequently used with Exchange Server), PowerPoint presentation software, and Publisher desktop publishing software, Visio diagraming software , Project, MapPoint, InfoPath XML forms software and OneNote, software for free-form information gathering, and multi-user collaboration.
All of these applications are installed on your computer hard drive, and the core products were all ground breaking in the early days of personal computing, especially as data binding, merging documents and data, OLE (object linking and embedding) and so on. The Microsoft universe is vast and for the majority of computer users these products are literally productivity computing, this is the world they work in.
The innovations in inter operation between applications in the earlier incarnations of the Office suite are in many ways being replicated by the open standards world today. Google is the company top of mind for most people on the planet taking advantage of their cornucopia of (mostly) free browser based applications.
Web 2.0 mash up innovations have gone industrial strength with Google's many globally available offerings, and their pace of change isn't slowing.
Microsoft have become fabulously wealthy on the per user, boxed software/seat licence model while Google are essentially an advertising company. (Adwords generated 21 billion dollars last year). The Faustian bargain you make when you use Google products is that you are being data mined and profiled - with Microsoft you are balancing vendor lock in with your other applications.
What's changed in the Office productivity world is the ability - and indeed the necessity - to collaborate over the internet.
Microsoft are addressing this with their next generation in 2010 and my prediction is that it will be a banner year for them. The concept of more of everything rather than rip and replace, as some of more narrowly focused evangelizers for strict doctrines call for, is logically the theme of next year.
No one expects business users who have put in 10,000 hours of honing their Microsoft Office chops, to paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell's 'Outliers', to abandon their virtuoso instrument and start playing a different one.
Like navigating a city, people know how to get there through experience with Office products. It may not be pretty and the user experience cludgy but you go with what you know. Against this reality, Google Applications has had relatively modest traction, and now that Microsoft are launching free cloud versions of their core Office applications (with the inevitable Faustian caveats), the lure of switching brands will be predicated by the key question - 'Why? What's in it for me?'.
The answer to this question is ultimately to focus on open standards in my opinion: while Google are brilliantly exploiting (and also a contributor to be fair) the efforts of the global open standards community, while Microsoft are far less closed and proprietary than in their past, inevitably these two juggernauts want to dominate and win the game.
We are all going to be continuing to use both Microsoft Office (and not necessarily the shiny new versions of course) and increasingly browser based productivity applications in the future.
One other area which is well understood by users in the collaboration world is browser based forums. While not requiring the Malcolm Gladwell 10k hours of skillset honing, most people on the planet can operate and interact with forums and have spent enough time understanding their value to them personally to feel very at home using them.
Regular readers may know I keep myself poor fooling around with old cars as a hobby: I know mechanically brilliant people in this area who are virtually illiterate but who know how to get what they need and help others sharing information on forums.
The 'what's in it for me' factor is a no brainer in this case. Use model understanding is fully baked with forums, against which much fewer basic personal computer users understand the relatively new concept of a wiki.
Imagine that the functionality contained in Discussions is now accessible to Zoho CRM, Projects, Sheet and Writer via a single mouse click. Now you have the start of a very rich collaborative business environment in which you can do one heck of a lot more than simply flog ’stuff.’ Take another step and imagine that Zoho integrates with QuickBooks. Now you’re into a whole new league where Zoho might have the capability of turning transactional data into valuable information that can be mined in real time and merged with data that’s emerging in the more social styles of application, forums and so on.
Zoho are the industrial strength independent version of Google Apps and are arguably an independent half way safe house between the Microsoft and Google productivity options. Already discretely slotting into corporate extranets as a low license cost productivity suite as well as being used in countless businesses of all sizes, their new discussions offering signals an intriguing year in 2010 as they add more tools and depth to their already formidable array.
Manage engine user community, the video at the top of this post, offers a community on top of their 'manage engine' innovation capture offering. These open standards offerings are going to keep coming from Zoho and others next year, and users will have greater choice - and price points - for productivity software than ever.
This user choice may yet spoil the Microsoft party (why are Microsoft marketing videos so ...weird?)