The Emperor’s New Web-based Office Suite

Every couple of years, the tech media giants get together to hold a secret meeting. According to my sources, it takes place in a cave, deep underground, somewhere just east of Wagga Wagga. The main order of business is to choose the next technology that will be the death of Microsoft... this time for certain. Past appointees, in chronological order, include Netscape, Java, Linux and Google. And while all of these technologies have proved successful (by at least some measures), none have exactly sent Microsoft packing.

But with their latest appointee, I'm starting to think they are scraping the bottom of the barrel. I'm talking about the so-called "Office 2.0" web-based productivity applications, such as Google Docs & Spreadsheets, SmartSheet, ThinkFree and countless others that keep springing up. I'll admit that when these web-based applications competing with Microsoft Office first sprung up, I was as intrigued as the next guy. So I started having a poke around at a few of the options. The first one I looked at was Google Spreadsheets, which was simultaneously one of the more impressive AJAX applications I've seen, and the worst spreadsheet application I've ever used. Yes it's cool that some Javascript rocket scientists could build such a thing, but Microsoft Works for DOS had more functionality circa 1988. The word processing offerings were even worse, with most offering less functionality than Wordpad.

Now before you accuse me of being overly harsh and brainwashed by years inside Microsoft's intergalactic headquarters, I'm not down on "Web 2.0" (other than the name), nor do I consider Office infallible. When the first AJAX version of Outlook Web Access came out (years before the AJAX term was coined), I was impressed. When Google Maps first came out, I was blown away at the possibilities of the new kinds of apps which could now run within a web browser. And now that Virtual Earth / Windows Live Local has leapt further ahead, I no longer find the need to use Microsoft Streets & Trips, the traditional desktop-based mapping software that I used to use quite a lot.

Office has never been short on good competitors either. In the very old days, Word and Excel lagged far behind WordPerfect and Lotus 123 respectively. Even once Office got ahead in sales, the key competitors such as SmartSuite and PerfectOffice were never very far behind in terms of functionality. And while I'll admit I've never used it, I've heard that isn't half bad, especially for the price. Yet none of these, even the newest, free-est alternative, have ever attracted much attention, compared to the new wave of web-based alternatives. Why? As far as I can tell, it's because everyone's attention is on what's new and interesting, not what's actually got the goods to deliver.

Of course, the current crop of these applications is just the first generation - and if they are (apparently) showing so much promise now, they can only get better in the future, right? Well, I'm sure they will get better, although I'm also pretty sure that there is a limit to the richness of user experience that AJAX has to offer, and that we're not far off from reaching this barrier. But more to the point, even if web-based Office apps could offer a comparable user experience and set of features, why is this a better way? Are we more productive because we're working in a browser and not some other window? Does this let us work on platforms where we don't already have good desktop-based options? Do we really want to be dependent on an Internet connection to type up a document?

One topic that comes up pretty often in reviews of web-based Office apps is collaboration features. I'll admit I've always been pretty underwhelmed by the collaboration capabilities within Microsoft Office (although the new features in Sharepoint are a step in the right direction), and that some of the "Office 2.0" startups are trying some interesting things. However I don't see why these features are limited to, or even better on, web-based apps over desktop equivalents. If you think about the tools that people most commonly use to collaborate, such as e-mail clients, instant messaging and meeting services, the overwhelming majority are not web-based. This doesn't mean there aren't good web sites that help with collaboration, but they certainly aren't the only way.

Anyway, in the long term I know it doesn't matter, as in a couple of years the elders will gather once more in their cave and choose the next big thing. I really hope they will make a better choice next time, although my informant tells me they are already leaning heavily towards the wireless washing machine. But in the meantime, I for one will be happy to see the Emperor's new web-based Office suite for what it really is.

Comments (6)
  1. What about mobility ? I use MS word for sure for everyday needs, but I like to have a copy of some important documents online to access them from anywhere. The same applies for some simple excel spreadsheets that I use.

    As for the Ajax barriers that you mention, maybe it’s the time for a real web 2.0, in terms of new standards.

  2. Doug says:

    Real Web 2.0 == WPF XAML?

  3. Mobile storage is nice, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with the product.  You just need a storage area on the net for your files which you can then access from your web office suite or your desktop version.

  4. AndrewSeven says:

    Have you been following the VirtuDyne store on ?

  5. Rich B says:

    AndrewSeven beat me to it…

    but is a more direct link.

    And this is definitely a funny coincidence.

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