Why Office 2.0 will never go wholly online

It's extremely naive to believe that the average user will be content to work solely with applications that only run online. Users will demand they run locally too, and disconnected.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

Dan wants to know what to ask Esther when Office 2.0 kicks off next week. Here's my question:

Who in the world can guarantee that they will never have to work offline?

I pose the question as an antidote to the huge amount of utter tosh that's written or spoken about Office 2.0. Such as TechCrunch's Michael Arrington at The Future of Web Apps conference last month reportedly citing "desktop apps (ported to online)" as being one of the fields offering "big potential" for startups. Even more naive was Nick Carr, predicting that the evolution of office suites would culminate in "Office 4.0 (c. early 2010s): fully web-based suites." To cap it all, the same day brought the news that an Online Works might be in the works at Microsoft. The extent to which people are talking up this fantasy market for hosted personal productivity suites beggars belief.

That's not to say that Ismael Ghalimi's vision for Office 2.0, which Dan quotes in his posting, won't be fulfilled. All I'm saying is that it's extremely naive to believe that the average user will be content to work solely with applications that only run online. I'm convinced that users will demand applications that run locally too, and which continue running while disconnected. As well as having all the characteristics Ismael cites in his definition of Office 2.0.

The reason is simple: In the real world, things break. Connections fail, like the Wi-Fi in my San Francisco hotel room the other week. Wireless coverage comes and goes. Sometimes the power goes off and everything stops except your battery-powered laptop, PDA or cellphone. When any of these things occur, any activities that depend on the network are suspended.

We accept that such network glitches will temporarily stop us from looking up information on the Web, from receiving IMs, alerts, newsfeeds and emails, from participating in shared workspaces or accessing shared data. All of the rich, collaborative resources of the Web just have to wait a little, until the connection is restored.

But why should a network outage stop me from getting on with my own individual tasks and projects? Most of what people do in Microsoft Office today revolves around individual interaction with the screen in front of them. Yes, there should be more collaboration — and that aspect of Office 2.0 is almost certainly where the most value will be created — but the fact remains that personal creative tasks, such as composing text, editing a spreadsheet or creating content for a slide presentation are performed by individual effort. Collaboration is something you do when you break off to seek advice, information or inspiration, or when it's time to review progress. When you're mid-task, collaboration interrupts and even inhibits the flow.

Network downtime is even more intrusive, especially when users are in the middle of a task that they regard as a direct interaction between themselves and the device in front of them. Every split second of wireless downtime or router overload is keenly felt when you're in the midst of capturing a train of thought or completing a complex operation.

That's why I believe Office 2.0 will have to be a lot smarter than simply offering collaborative, hosted versions of today's personal productivity suites. Users will demand applications that can run locally on disconnected clients, at least for those personal creative tasks. So Office 2.0 will have to support smart clients of the kind that Ryan Stewart writes about in his Universal Desktop blog. But to conform to Ismael Ghalimi's vision of a maintenance-free, run-anywhere client they'll have to go one better: they'll have to be what I've called 'serviced clients':

"Serviced clients combine the best of both worlds for users. They provide all the convenience of network-resident applications — no installation or upgrade woes — along with all the rich functionality of desktop-resident applications — lightning-fast data retrieval and validation, high-speed graphics, astounding multimedia capabilities and so on."

I wrote that description in the context of discussing Microsoft Vista and how desktop virtualization technology may play a role in the future development of Vista as a smart serviced client platform — perhaps a more elegant term is 'virtual client', which conveys its dual nature: simultaneously native to the client yet also network-resident. Of course there are other platforms apart from Vista that could be used (even Office 2007, as Josh Greenbaum suggested this week). Mike Arrington was sufficiently clued-in to follow up his comments about porting desktop apps online with the view that new classes of companies will be launched on Adobe's new Apollo platform.

In my view, virtualized smart client platforms like these will be fundamental to the success of the Office 2.0 vision. Whereas companies that seek their fortunes merely by porting desktop applications online most certainly will not.

PS: (As a matter of disclosure and further reading) I've just started writing a series of columns on smart clients for a consulting client, on-demand CRM vendor entellium. The first has just gone online, called What sort of Web client do users really want?, and it expands on the reasons why I feel traditional browser-based clients won't go far enough to satisfy the demands of application users. See my disclosure page for a full list of my commercial engagements.

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