Infrastructure // PC & Servers
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10/12/2006
07:08 PM
Charles Babcock
Charles Babcock
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Web Applications: Just Out Of Reach

Google is putting its Writely word processing into an online application suite. I look forward to the day when a Web app suite is available and I won't have to send any more dollars to Bill Gates for Office upgrades. But that day still hasn't arrived.

Google is putting its Writely word processing into an online application suite. I look forward to the day when a Web app suite is available and I won't have to send any more dollars to Bill Gates for Office upgrades. But that day still hasn't arrived.When I've gone to print out my Web word processing, in some cases the results were unpredictable, bordering on unintelligible. Must have been the beta version. But even a panel of speakers at Office 2.0, a conference on Web-based applications in San Francisco Oct. 11 and 12, acknowledged they fell short of cutting themselves free from Microsoft Office.

"Office 2.0 [meaning Web applications] is a non-U.S. environment. Elsewhere people are using cell phones and other devices to access Web applications. We're so addicted to our PCs," noted Om Malik, executive editor of GigaOm.com, a technology blog. In other words, other societies don't necessarily share this Microsoft addiction problem. Karen Leavitt, VP of WebOffice for WebEx, noted that knowledge workers in other parts of the world will skip the desktop phase of applications and move straight to collaborative Web applications, just as cell phone users in China skipped the telephone pole and landline era. And that would leave the U.S. a step behind. Many American workers are proving slow to convert; even WebEx workers aren't 100% converted to Web applications, she said.

We all have inertia about migrating to an alternative. Andrew McAfee, associate professor at the Harvard Business School and one of the speakers, said in his blog that any replacement for Microsoft Outlook e-mail will have to be nine times better than Outlook. That's because we overvalue what we know, and we discount the value of something that comes along that would require us to change. He credits a colleague in marketing, John Gourville, with coming up with that formula; hence, his "nine times better" multiplier.

To my mind, Zimbra and other suppliers focusing on Web application collaboration have got the right idea. The Zimbra spreadsheet being worked on by one member of the team gets added to the Zimbra document being worked on by another. As the spreadsheet gets updated, the document gets updated also. But it's going to have to have a similar look and feel and be as easy to use as Word.

Collaboration is the key to differentiating Web applications from desktop applications. But I suspect Microsoft is going to start adding collaboration extensions as fast as collaboration applications arrive on the Web. Then the nine-times multiplier kicks in again, raising the bar for Web applications while keeping our dollars flowing to Microsoft.

Until the benefits of collaboration give Web applications a clear advantage over PC applications, Office 1.0 (Microsoft) is going to hold sway over Office 2.0. "Microsoft Office is the devil I know," said Shel Israel, Office 2.0 panelist and author of Naked Conversations, How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk With Customers. "I played with Writely," he said, "but I found nothing there compelling me to change."

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