There's been a lot of talk about the pros and cons of a web-based office lately, prompted by Nick Carr's excellent post entitled Office generations. In it he suggested the following timeline for office software:
Office 1.0 (1980s): a set of discrete and often incompatible applications for word processing, spreadsheets, presentation creation, and simple database management. Archetype: Lotus 1-2-3.
Office 2.0 (1990 - present): integrated suites of PPAs, with expanded, if still limited, collaboration capabilities. Archetype: Microsoft Office.
Office 3.0 (present - early 2010s): hybrid desktop/web suites incorporating internet-based tools and interfaces to facilitate collaboration and web publishing.
Office 4.0 (c. early 2010s): fully web-based suites.
I was at first quite surprised that Nick Carr thinks a fully Web-based office suite will be common place by the early 2010s. The key point about the current and near future generation of office software is that Web technology is driving the change I had kind of pinned him as a 'Web/desktop hybrid' guy - but no, he's convinced (like me) that the office suite will be fully web-based in 5 or so years. Of course I've been banging on about Web Office for some time on this blog. Indeed my most popular post ever here was a September 2005 piece entitled The Web-based Office will have its day. Although I have learned much more about Web Office apps since I wrote it a year ago, I stand by the main message from that post:
"The time for the web-based office will come, mark my words. When broadband is ubiquitous, web functionality is richer, issues of security and reliability have been put to rest, and most importantly of all - when Corporates are ready to make the jump. It may be 5-10 years down the track, it may be longer."
So I generally agree with Nick Carr's timeline of a Web Office suite being commonplace by early 2010s. I don't think it's worthwhile arguing over version numbers (Office 2.0, 4.0, etc), as some commenters have done. The key point about the current and near future generation of office software is that Web technology is driving the change.
On that point, it's important to remember that with new technology comes new functionality. A term I use for this is 'Web native', meaning that the next generation of office software will not necessarily be the same as the past PC-based generation (typified by Microsoft Office). The new generation will have Web native functionality - including, but not limited to, collaboration. Rod Boothby likes to say that blogs and wikis are the first major 'office 2.0' apps, but I think a web-based suite will be so much more than publishing and collaboration features.
One new feature that I think will be common place is 'mashups', whereby data is sourced and combined from a variety of internal and external sources. Imagine an online spreadsheet for a marketing report where you gather data from all over the Web and across internal business units too.
"The main problem that most of these 'Office 2.0' apps have is that they are ‘Horseless Carriages’, still pretending to be something they’re not, rather than Automobiles. [...] a new breed of productivity apps that bear as little resemblance to desktop PC productivity apps as VisiCalc did to minicomputer apps will arrive soon enough and surprise us all."
We're beginning to see those kinds of apps appear on the scene - Zimbra is not a traditional office suite, even though they recently added word processing and spreadsheets. Their main strength is as a messaging collaboration system, for example the ability to do all kinds of mashups inside email (integrating salesforce data, Fedex tracking numbers, yahoo maps, etc). I'm also keeping my eye on fledgling startups such as DabbleDB and Morfik, which are creating totally new types of web-based office functionality.
Web Office specialists such as Zoho and ThinkFree are also building up a lot of expertise in web-based office systems, which will over time result in new functionality. Plus as Dan Farber pointed out, Microsoft is well aware of these trends and is working to web-enable its office products (Office Live is just the beginning of that process, I believe).
The Web Office will happen and probably in the early 2010s, as Nick Carr predicts. It's still too early to tell what form the Web Office will take, but one thing I know is that it will be something very different to Microsoft Office.