On my ZDNet blog last night I took a look at the evolving world of Web Office widgets. I noted that the personalized start page Pageflakes has just introduced a couple of new office "flakes" - a Calendar Flake and a Notepad Flake. They also have an existing Mail Flake, as well as flakes for Writely and iRows. Netvibes, Webwag and others also have similar offerings. Is this a sign that we'll soon see a widget office suite!? That may sound odd at first, but when you think about it - componentized web apps are potentially very useful on a company Intranet. From my ZDNet post:
So the question is: what can you use a Web Office Start Page for? I must admit I don't use email within my start page - I use Gmail and it occupies the first tab in my browser 100% of the time. But with word processing and spreadsheets, there are certain files that I use frequently during the day (e.g. my timesheet) - and so having them available in my start page would be useful. Likewise with my calendar or a notepad.
Also it helps to think of a start page as like an Intranet dashboard, where you have the documents and files you use regularly either open - or a click away - in your dashboard.
I wrote about this back in September, when I noted the arrival of Google's Personalized Start Page for Enterprise - which I nicknamed its 'instant intranet'. It is one of the options available in Google's Apps For Your Domain service. Also included in the package is email, IM, calendar and website creator - with Docs & Spreadsheets rumored to be in the mix in the future.
Charlie Wood from Spanning Partners picked up on this theme and warns about the potential security issues:
"Let's say I have an enterprise application out of which I want to pull some data for display in a widget. Obviously, that data is going to be secured, so two things need to happen: first, my widget canvas needs to support secure data access, and second, I need to trust my widget engine to access my enterprise applications on my behalf.
Desktop-based widget engines like KlipFolio and Skinkers are already used for delivering sensitive data. They support encrypted, password-protected data retrieval, and they store encrypted credentials on the user's machine. But web-based widgets are a different story.
Today, few if any web-based widget canvases support secure data in any meaningful way."
Charlie goes on to describe how an enterprise developer might go about creating a business widget. He also says that web-based Intranet dashboards probably won't come from consumer-focused start pages like Netvibes or Pageflakes, but "companies that have already made the massive investment needed to form the foundation for what some are calling the Business Web." I'd agree with him there, but I also think Google will have a go at creating a full-fledged Intranet dashboard. They've already started, with the Apps For Your Domain start page described above. And if Google goes there, you can bet Microsoft is sure to follow.
As for the likes of Pageflakes and Netvibes, Charlie is right that they will focus on consumers and individuals - but I've always thought there are a lot of white-labeling opportunities for those start pages, which is where office apps may become an important part of their service.