I’m currently attending the Office 2.0 conference in San Francisco. Here are my thoughts so far…
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?
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?
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!
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.
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.
“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.”
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.