Intro to Office 2.0

by Alan Graham

I'm currently attending the Office 2.0 conference in San Francisco. Here are my thoughts so far...

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First, in case you are wondering what is Office 2.0, I'll borrow a bit from their website:

"Imagine a computer that never crashes, or gets infected by a virus. Imagine a computer onto which you never have to install any application. Imagine a computer that follows you wherever you go, be it at school, at work, abroad, or back home. This computer does not exist today, but it will in the future, and this future might be much closer than you think."


You can likely trace the original idea of this back to Larry Ellison's 1996 pitch for the Network Computer. In case you weren't working in tech then, the idea was that all data, whether documents or applications, resided on a server, and all computers were mainly gateways to that data. Terminals had minimal hardware and no actual software. There was a definite cost advantage to this and from an IT standpoint, a brilliant way to manage upgrades. Seems like a pretty good idea, but it failed to catch on.

And really, whoever thought that you'd store applications and files anywhere else than on your local hard drive?

That's absurd.

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Flash Forward

We're doing just that.

Data doesn't care where it is stored and applications no longer need to be PC-centric. The tubes of the Internets have made it possible to literally run applications in browser windows, and we're seeing a whole new emergence of online services built out to mimic software, with true drag and drop support and even links to external hardware.

The browser is no longer just for browsing.

So a slight correction I'll make to the Office 2.0 intro above is that you should NOT imagine a computer that doesn't crash...imagining a computer misses the point of Office 2.0 which is more about synchronization, collaboration, and managing workflow. In Office 2.0, what it means to be "online" is the new challenge we face. I think a lot of Office 2.0 companies are missing this point. They are rapidly creating online applications that without "connectivity" are useless. There is all this talk about web apps...but without the network (which still feels like it was slapped together with twine and duct tape), what's the point? I'm not hearing enough here about connectivity...which makes me wonder...why aren't there more telecom people here as speakers or on panels?

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The Online Office Suite

In one of Wednesdays sessions entitled, "One Day in the Life of an Office 2.0 Worker," we were treated to a variety of demonstrations on how to bring your current desktop-based office suite of applications to a web-based suite of applications. To me this fundamentally misses many of the issues that I and others like me have with online applications. There are currently too many solutions and a lack of cohesion between them. Everyone seems to piecemeal twelve different online solutions to make one thing work. It is maddening.

In addition to this it seems that everyone is trying to recreate every single desktop app into an online app, and quite frankly, that simply doesn't make sense. Certain tasks will never run better over the web than locally on a computer.

If there is a bubble to the Web 2.0 economy, it is this. It reminds me of the last internet boom when just because some companies were seeing success selling products online, companies all of a sudden decided they could sell 50lbs. bags of dog food online at a loss. Let's not go overboard here.

We're creating more and more applications that require more and more CPU cycles, more RAM, more storage. What we haven't done enough of is creating seamless connectivity. We're easily behind almost every Asian country...I can't even get a decent cell phone signal in my neighborhood and I live in the bastion of high tech, San Francisco.

Can you hear me now?

It is all about the network, stupid!

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What Office 2.0 Needs

The challenge with Office 2.0 in my mind really comes down to several things.

1. Whether cell phones, wi-fi devices, or computers, easy access to the same data is a major milestone we need to fix. My cell phone cannot view the same data as my Pocket PC, and my Pocket PC cannot view the same data as my laptop. How we get to our data is every bit as important as the data itself.

2. Why can't I get a seamless link between my business/personal contacts and my cell phone/Computer/web service? Synching should never be a decision. Changes should occur across all my devices and services as they happen, and not require human interaction. Why do we have Caller ID, but our phones don't utilize it to create automatic Address Books? I want my gear to program itself. All I want to do is approve what goes in and what gets deleted.

3. Online storage is silly. A whole gigabyte of free storage. WaHooooo! I've got 1Terabyte at home and 2GB of files I regularly access on my laptop. The idea of paying monthly fees for online storage I can get for less in a physical drive, doesn't make a lot of sense. I think this issue is not one of value-added storage as a business model (which I still find crazy), but one of connectivity. Online storage is less important to me than access to the storage I already have. Solve the connection issue and not the storage issue.

4. Speed is certainly a problem. We've grown accustom to clicking a button and an instant action occurs. There is often a delay between what you want a web app to do and when it actually happens. There are currently too many variables that affect this, including who makes the device, who provides the connection, and so on.

5. Reliability. My laptop is certainly more reliable in many respects to a web service. Getting to your data is reliant on your device manufacturer, the network you are on, numerous providers along the way, the company holding the data, and their providers. If any aspect of that link fails, you are without your mission critical data. As we saw in a demo today (Gmail was temporarily down), that result can be a big fat goose egg. If you are doing a presentation on the benefits of Office 2.0, rather embarrassing.

6. Who do you trust with your data? I'm sorry but having my entire business and personal life one subpoena away from whoever wants to look at it is a bit scary. These companies and my data are also privy to disgruntled employees and hackers.

7. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. I think there are a lot of companies recreating applications that simply work better as a local application than as a web app. Look to the past to see when a "good idea" is not necessarily a good idea.

8. Migration. If I trust a service and put my data on it and I'm not happy with it, it is often very difficult to migrate that data to a new service.

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If Wishes Were Horses...

My hope for Office 2.0 really comes down more to collaboration/connectivity and less reinventing applications for the web. Mike Cannon-Brookes from Atlassian had a good comment during the Managing Blogs & Wikis in the Enterprise session yesterday. He mentioned that we will not likely see people using online office suites to work in Office 2.0 (contrary to what most online office suites will have you believe), but instead our existing localized applications, like Word, will simply become the gateway to Office 2.0. I think he's right.

People want to work on what they are comfortable using. Some people use Word, some text editors, me...I use an email client. The key is not building a web app to replace what I love...but enabling what I love to connect to Office 2.0.

Rafe Needleman shares my pain:


"Me, although I write about Web-based applications all the time, I confess that I'm probably at Office 1.25. I still use Microsoft Word and Outlook, and I store all my files on my local hard disk. I use Web tools for collaboration, and I am eager to move to Office 2.0 apps, but it's hard to break my old habits."

Again...I think Office 2.0 is more about connectivity/collaboration/synchronization than online "applications."

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Finally

One of the most astute observations came from Esther Dyson during her keynote. She referred to wikis (and I feel it applies to the world of Office 2.0) as there were a lot of nouns but no verbs...essentially that while a great knowledge base (or cloud) exits, there is not a lot of automated action occurring based on that information. What good is information if it just sits there?

I'd like to amend what she said a bit to the whole Office 2.0 environment and state that there are an awful lot of words, but not enough language. We've got a lot of tools, but we need to tie them together.

Office 2.0 has a lot of promise, and many of the ideas here at this conference are wonderful. However, until we work out the entire connectivity and collaborative aspect, like the Network Computer, it seems like a good idea going nowhere.

9 Comments

Zac
2006-10-12 13:26:02
I definitely agree with what you are saying here. As we branch out to more and more devices, the connectivity between those devices becomes more and more of a headache, and what we need is a connectivity solution, not replacements for software that already works well and is not improved by being moved online.


This is actually one of the reasons I think dotMac is worth the $100 a year. I know most people despise the service, but it provides me with a lot of the connectivity solutions you mention (although certainly not all of them). Calendars, contacts, emails, bookmarks, are all synced for me without any input required for me. Furthermore, I have my iDisk mirrored on my hardrive (on both my laptop and desktop), allowing me to do work on the same documents from both of the computers without any thought or extra effort put towards syncing the files. It also seems instant because the files are synced in the background.


Is it a 100% solution? No, by no means. There is definitely a lot that can be done with the concept that has not been done yet. Hopefully some one will "get it" before too long.

Alan Graham
2006-10-12 13:35:55
Amen Zac!


I just watched a demo where a company, that I assume is funded, allows you to create presentations online. Now I'm not talking about uploading presentations...but actually creating them. I'm sorry, but localized presentation software is a much better solution than "Web 2.0-ing" it. Keynote is outstanding and it exports to umpteen gazillion formats...including a very nice html viewer. You just can't create these types of presentations on a web app.


Alan

Kilian
2006-10-12 20:05:12
I second Zac's comment


Most of people talking about the networked computer and how everything has to be accessible via the web somehow miss the point. Nobody with a brain wants to have all their data on some dubious server "on the Web" and there only.
What if I'm at the Corn Farmers Convertion in southern Poughkeepsie? Or on the countryside in eastern Transilvania? What if there's just no way to get online?


That's why I still prefer services like .Mac (with all their downsides). Because my data is on my computers/devices and I'm just syncing it via the Web. I've got my complete iDisk as a mirrored drive image on my Mac. I can work with it even offline and whenever I get online again it'll be synched automatically without any intervention by me. That's how it makes sense. I don't want to be dependent on the Internet by any means, even though I'm living in Tokyo and you'd actually have a hard time finding any place here _without_ Internet access. You just never know.


In the worst case I can still sync all my macs via my iPod using Sync.

Ian Randall
2006-10-12 23:27:54
Perhaps I have been around too long and have become jaded with all the hype, but people were saying all this same stuff 25 years ago with dumb character mode screens accessing mainframes and networked mini computers and called it office automation, then PC's came out and we started to share data on file servers, then groupware software emerged, then diskless PC's etc.


The user interfaces improved but the basic functionality that most people actually used was essentially the same. Moving office services back into the network has some real challenges before I will jump back in that direction.


I agree with Alan, in order for a paradigm shift to occur, several things need to happen first:


1) My private stuff needs to stay "absolutely" private regardless of what the administrator thinks or my boss wants, so the level of security needs to improve by several orders of magnitude before I will trust sharing my private stuff on a shared network domain.


2) Regardless of what device I use, I should be able to access my information from anywhere at any time.


3) The system needs to know who I am at all time, so that it can manage my content and my context, and I may want to have multiple contexts depending on what I am doing at the time.


4) Perhaps the user interface or range of services presented to me can automatically expand or contract based on the bandwidth available to me at the time. But the basic services should be the same.


5) In the real world "always connected" is a dream and not a reality, so I need to be able to work seamlessly on-line or off-line. I work in Lotus Notes and love it's support of a disconnected model providing the same basic services when I am connected or not.


6) I need to collaborate and interact with others with my choice of tools and editors not have to change tools. The network should adapt to me not the other way around.


7) I only want to have one of everything, not multiple passwords, multiple contact lists, multiple search methods, multiple naming conventions etc. I want the system to normalize everything so I only have one of everything and not the same or similar information displaying inconsistent views of the same type of information.


8) I want to be able to evolve into this new paradigm at my pace, keeping for the most part what I currently have.


Several years ago the concept of a free Gigabyte of central storage might have sounded really appealing, but now that you can get that much flash drive storage for less than the cost of a hard cover book, it doesn't seem so appealing anymore.


9) And finally when I say print, I want it to automatically detect where I physically am now and print my page at the nearest printer to me.

Simon Hibbs
2006-10-13 05:02:09
I was thinking of Wikis particularly as I read your article. Writely is an interesting and useful application, but the web way to do it is a Wiki-like architecture. What's the point of a web document if you can't link to _and_ from it? Similarly I want to put a link to my Google spreadsheet on my googlepages site, or even have a widget on the site back-ended by a google spreadsheet as a calculation engine.


Eventualy this has to come, if Office 2.0 apps are to realise their true potential. Maybe an incremental approach will get us there, with usable microproducts along the way, but right now there's a lot of unfullfilled potential out there and no clear indication of how these companies intend to fulfill it.

Zac
2006-10-13 09:09:29
One additional two cents. I don't think our online data will ever be private, and that is just something we're going to have to accept if we are want to reap the benefits of storing our data on remote servers. Although Google was willing to fight government subpeonas (does anyone know how that turned out by the way?), Microsoft and AOL caved in instantly, and I think that is behavior you can expect from most companies. Unless there is government legislation to support protecting your online data, I don't think this is something that will change.
El-Ric
2006-10-14 06:34:43
This is all very well for officey users who only use tiny files and perhaps it might well work for some, but I'm not sure I can see the net getting fast enough to edit A/V in real time for example. And really yes, who wants to store theire own private data on some dubious server ? It's bad enough already with our credit card info being bought and sold by all and sundry. Some say the "Notion of Privacy is Changing", I totally disagree. I see a little clash of cultures between the "Swarm" and the individual here.


Sean Tierney
2006-10-15 17:50:28
Alan,
good summary. I was there as well and agree with your feedback. Replicating these "me-too" microsoft apps in the browser is completely missing the boat of where things need to go.
RE: synchronization w/ your mobile devices- Zimbra has over-the-air sync with many PDA's - it was mentioned a few times during the conference. It's a solid opensource outlook exchange replacemet you might want to look into.


The connectivity issues during the demos really showed how the speed issue gets amplified over a bad connection. The right solution as you say will involve building conduits into existing office apps and allowing to run in a partially-connected environment where the info can be synced when there is a connection. I wrote up some other thoughts in a blog post during the last VC panel of the show here if you're interested-> http://www.scrollinondubs.com/?p=144


sean

Randall
2007-12-01 22:37:03
There are a lot of things that don't make sense on the web, due mainly to bandwidth, the difficulty of emulating desktop functionality in a browser, and the simple fact that to use web apps, you have to be connected to the web. But these issues are improving. The desktop will soon be irrelevant to the vast majority of web users. The majority will be on cell phones and other hand held devices. We won't need 100 GB of storage on our local machines. We won't even need quad core processors, we'll just need a fat pipe and a big screen.


That being said, there are tons of situations where the web makes way more sense than a local app. Anything involving the sharing of information across a globally disperse environment. Who wants to go back to the days when you update a spreadsheet, then email it to your business associate in another time zone, then wait for her to make changes, then email it back to you? Mean while, you can't update that function you realize has a bug in it because Michelle has the file right now.


So what are the requirements to make a good online app? Multiple users need to communicate. Data storage retrieval per transaction is minimal and you only need access to the information while you can connect to the web. That last one is changing with Google Gears, Qrimp, and other apps that allow you to synchronize, take your data with you on your laptop, then resynchronize when you reconnect to the web.


The desktop is big and clunky and it gets in the way. It's hard to transport and most people don't. All we need anymore is a laptop and an internet connection. Pretty soon, we'll be beaming the information wirelessly to chips in our brains that project our screens directly onto our visual cortex and we input data with our brain waves.


Sign me up!