What you see is what you publish

Adobe's acquisition of Buzzword sends a challenge to Google and Microsoft, but more significant is what Buzzword tells us about the nature of online documents and the applications we'll use to create them.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

Adobe's acquisition of Virtual Ubiquity and its Buzzword online word processor brings Adobe into direct competition with Microsoft and Google in the Office 2.0 space (or as Scoble sensibly retitles it, Work 2.0). But much more more significant in my view is what Buzzword tells us about the nature of online documents and the applications we'll use to create them. Adobe has a quite different heritage from its two main competitors and that shines through in today's announcements (all Techmeme coverage here).

Compared to other online word processors, Buzzword is a revelation (see screenshot gallery). In concept, it is to Google Docs what Microsoft Word once was to WordPerfect — a comment that probably means little to anyone born after 1975, but which goes to the issue of heritage. Google Docs is a good first-generation attempt at putting document editing online, but it's hampered by a restrictive environment and too much emulation of earlier offline products, in particular Word — for similar reasons, the pre-Windows WordPerfect lost its market leadership to Word back at the start of the 1990s.

Adobe's credentials stretch back even further, to the early days of WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) desktop publishing software on the Mac and then on Windows. But until now, it's never released a general office productivity application. Instead, it's spent its time honing online skills and technologies, in particular its PDF document exchange format and all the Web publishing acumen and accompanying Flash technology that it acquired when it bought Macromedia.

All that heritage comes together in Buzzword, which provides a compelling showcase for Adobe's technologies. Maybe Buzzword will prove to be the 'killer app' that establishes Adobe's Flash and AIR technologies as the default user interface environment for the Web, just as Excel and its ilk ensured the dominance of Windows. But it's a little too early just yet to predict Buzzword's success. It shows us what Web applications are likely to look like in the future:

  • Social
  • Visual
  • Produce finished results
  • Enhanced by paid services
  • Able to run disconnected

Currently, though, there are big gaps between what Buzzword seems to promise and what it actually delivers.

Where Buzzword really outclasses its opposition is in the application of social media thinking to the application. The folder view, for example, clusters documents by author, listing the author's name as a subheading with a picture alongside. When viewing a document, the authors' names and pictures are visible along the bottom of the screen. Annotations are handled in a similarly elegant and socially-aware manner. All of this of course is the work of the Virtual Ubiquity team, whose CEO Rick Treitman, describes Buzzword as "an online word processor for the 'Facebook generation'." Their heritage, by the way, is via Lotus Notes and more recently the eRoom online collaboration application acquired in 2002 by Documentum (itself later acquired by EMC).

The use of embedded pictures is just one example of the way Buzzword makes full use of the Flash platform to make the application visually productive to use. Rafe Needleman's write-up on CNET's Webware site highlights features such as "excellent use of color" in the user interface, with components that "slide and fade instead of popping and blinking," real-time text flow around images and "full formatting in comments, including images and tables." A new generation of online applications coming out now have been developed using Flex and are starting to redefine expectations for image handling, color support and visual flexibility. But Needleman sums up the product as "gorgeous but underpowered" because of limitations elsewhere.

One of the most important ways that Buzzword uses Flash technology is to take WYSIWYG to a new level of accuracy, making it possible to zoom in and see characters and positioning in precise detail — what-you-see truly is what-you'll-get when it rolls out of the printer (as one eHub reviewer wrote, "With Buzzword, it's WYSIWYP. (That 'P' is for 'print'.)". There are some downsides to offering this degree of perfection. First of all, Buzzword's makers have had to limit support to just seven fonts in the current version. No doubt one of the first effects of Adobe's dollars and backing pouring into the company will be a rapid expansion in the number of fonts supported, but since Adobe plans to charge for extensions to the free product, you can imagine that a larger font family will be one of the first items on the chargeable price list. Another downside is that output options are limited. Apart from printing (which is when the WYSIWYG promise comes into play) the only output options are Word or RTF. As Webware's Needleman notes, "you can't save to HTML nor, ironically, to Adobe's own PDF format."

One of the treats the Buzzword team like to show off in their product demo is the ease of adding extra paragraphs to a single point within a numbered sequence without having the program add an unwanted new paragraph number. This of course is a Word-beating feature and highlights Buzzword's next-generation design. Word is rooted in the world that existed two decades ago, when people composed a document and then went through a separate process of preparing it for publication (often by a separate person, such as a typist or a layout designer). It is architected to build documents first and then interpret them into a print view. As a result, it makes a meal of paragraph numbering and many other operations where text and formatting interact (my worst bugbear is the way it handles text within text boxes). Buzzword is different because it has been architected for editing to publication-readiness as a single process. To my mind, this is a natural consequence of designing a collaborative word processor, because the single reason why people are most likely to collaborate on a document is because they are going to publish it to a readership of some kind. Google Apps forces people into a two-stage process of editing the words first and then transferring them into Word or some other document layout package to prepare the published version. The breakthrough capability that Buzzword delivers is that it allows the team to take a publication all the way through from the first outline to the final printed document.

The only drawback with this what-you-see-is-what-you-publish (WYSIWYP) approach is that Buzzword's execution is hamstrung by the lack of publishing options. That is likely to change, though, once the acquisition is finalized. Adobe product manager Erik Larson told me in a pre-briefing on Friday that the company will look to tie Buzzword into its existing publishing and image manipulation products — in particular the upcoming PhotoShop online service — and another move might be to integrate Adobe's Connect web conferencing product more closely into Buzzword's collaboration features. As for publishing to the Web, Adobe has today also announced a new file-sharing service that is able to share Buzzword documents. Adobe Share has a REST-style API which means any document can be accessed via a simple URL and also allows developers to create mashups that link documents into applications. Some interesting new approaches may emerge once web developers get to grips with the API.

The final element of note is the ability to run on the desktop using Adobe's smart client platform, AIR. The current version still requires an Internet connection (desktop support is simply a by-product of developing to version 9.0 of the Flash engine). Disconnected working on documents will be supported in the future, once mechanisms for version synchronization and other necessary software engineering have been added in.

What-you-see-is-what-you-publish is a concept that applies to software publishers, too. What Microsoft sees is very different from Adobe's worldview. Microsoft announced a new service today that purports to compete with Share (lots of Techmeme coverage here). Called Office Live Workspace, it's a Microsoft-hosted Sharepoint service that adds an online dimension to your already-installed copy of Office. But it won't let you compose and edit documents online. As Dennis Howlett comments on his AccMan blog, "Rather than simplifying the whole story as it should have done, [Microsoft] has instead rendered a whole layer of complexity. Crackers." I can't say I'm as surprised as Dennis. Microsoft sees a forest of servers and acres of Office licences. It publishes services to serve that landscape.

Adobe can take a fresh view of the Office 2.0 market and sees it differently. I was interested to read in Rafe Needleman's article that Adobe is planning both a presentation application and "a number-handling product (the reps wouldn't use the word 'spreadsheet')." The refusal to adopt the market's existing terminology is instructive: it suggests that Adobe wants to look at what users are really trying to do, rather than simply replicate today's suites online.

One thing to bear in mind, though, is that, like Microsoft, Adobe makes most all of its money from conventional on-premises licensed software. Just like Microsoft or SAP, it wants to make a 'soft-landing' transition from that existing model to a subscription-based online services model. By targeting a high-volume applications market where it currently has no presence, it no doubt hopes to create a strong subscription revenue flow before it has to start cannabilizing its current perpetual license revenues from products such as PhotoShop, Acrobat and Dreamweaver. But all that conventional-vendor DNA may hamper its chances of success. Buzzword gives us a glimpse of how the future may look, but we'll have to wait and see just how committed Adobe is to that future.

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