Web office is about collaboration

The future of Web-based office tools isn't in displacing their offline cousins. Rather, it's in doing things that they don't do well. Once such niche is collaboration.
Written by Phil Windley, Contributor

Have you ever noticed that when you learn a new word, you seem to hear it pop up in conversation over and over again for the next little while. The word's probably appearing with the same frequency it always has--you're just noticing now. That how I feel about Web office tools lately.

A few weeks ago, I read and commented on Oliver Rist's experiment to go a week using nothing but Web tools. This was probably an experiment doomed to failure since Oliver's a professional writer with a set of well-established work patterns.

Then last week at the CTO Breakfast I facilitate each month, we spent a fair amount of time on the subject of Google Doc. Then, with Google's purchase of JotSpot, the Web office is very much in the news. Dan Farber just posted a pointer to a list of barriers to adoption for such tools.

I think a lot of the talk has missed the mark, however. If you believe Clayton Christensen knows something about how innovation and disruption happen--and I do--online office suites won't win by trying to be offline office tools. Rather they'll compete where offline tools perform poorly or not at all. That is, they'll compete with non-consumption.

So, where don't Word and Excel compete well today? The very place that online tools shine: collaboration. Microsoft would like you to believe that that's why your enterprise needs SharePoint, but that's just another form of lock in and ignores that fact that corporate boundaries matter less and less as time goes on. Exchange suffers from the same problem. These tools are built for the enterprise world that existed 10 years ago.

I've opened and written some test documents in various online office tools over the last few months, but I'd never found a good reason to use one until a few days ago. Someone I'm working with in another city suggested we collaboratively edit a document using Goggle Docs while we talked on the phone. I loved the experience and I'm sure I'll use it much in the future. This is a sweet spot that can't be ignored.

The barriers these tools face are only about offline usage or migration if you believe that the only path to success for these tools is to displace their desktop bound cousins. That sort of thing almost never happens. The PC didn't displace the minicomputer by doing things better than or even as good as the minicomputer. Rather, PCs displaced minis by doing different, ultimately more useful, things. The people who bought PCs weren't the people buying minis. It was a whole different group.

So it is with the Web office. If they try to compete head-to-head, they lose. If they go after things that offline tools can't do well--like collaboration--they'll hit the ball out of the park.

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