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Who Will Be Your Web Office Provider?

I want to replace both my Windows laptop and my Blackberry with an iPhone. I love my Blackberry, but I don’t like lugging my laptop around. I know I need a laptop sometimes, but if I can just leave it behind more times that will be a big improvement. I think this is a reasonably typical use case. Mobility is the key driver.

I have faith that iPhone will get decent connectivity at some point and that the aftermarket will create a neat foldable keyboard for times when the touch-screen is not enough. So what I need to figure out is: when that happens, who will be my Web Office provider?

The Big Players

Personally, I will only trust a big vendor. Sorry to all the start-ups with cool new Web Office stuff and I hope one of the big guys buys you. My data is just too critical to trust to a company that might disappear, change policy significantly or simply not keep up with the emerging requirements. So with that in mind, the contenders out there currently are:

1. Google. They look like the leader at the moment in Web Office. I am concerned about their respect for privacy and the degree of dominance they have. But Gmail looks like a winner and that may drive other innovations. [Ed: Google is also very strong IMO in Docs & Spreadsheets]

2. Microsoft. I think they are serious about something that is not tied to the legacy and I am sure they will be around and relevant in 10 years. Now that Bill Gates is giving away his money, I will even forgive him all my Ctrl Alt Dlt hell. However I suspect that usability will be an issue.

3. Apple. I suspect they may be the most atuned to mobility as the big driver. Oh and it will look gorgeous; and that is a nice bonus.

4. Amazon. The dark horse. With S3/EC2 they have a platform for developers. This could be the Microsoft story; build the platform first, win over developers and then do apps.

Which Microsoft Office Products are Threatened?

Let’s now look at the question: what parts of Microsoft Office are replaceable with Web Office parts?

1. Word. It is often frustrating and it is the least stable of the bunch. I am using Word less frequently these days and instead I use a) WordPress; b) email (see Outlook section below) and c) Notes, when I want something quickly when there is no connectivity.

When I want a professional looking document that looks good online, I want PDF. How about Wiki to PDF, with formatting done by a specialist? In other words, compatibility with Word is no longer the key driver.

2. Powerpoint. This is also becoming increasingly irrelevant. I often create the text and ask somebody else to create the visuals, as that is not my strength. What I really want to create is more compelling audio-visual presentations that work well online, like Screencasts. This will almost certainly be a collaborative process, with perhaps a creative person on a Mac doing the clever stuff (and he/she won’t be using PPT).

3. Outlook. OK, Microsoft you got me here! When I am in the office, it is open all day long and I use it all the time. I just switched back to Mac and so now it is Entourage, but same difference. The Blackberry has changed my Outlook habits a bit. I now use Blackberry more than Outlook for reminders and notes (a reminder that only works when I am at my desk is useless and I want to write notes when the thoughts come). Blackberry is the primary place where I enter contacts, as it is so easy to save details from an email when adding a new contact; I synch to Outlook primarily as back-up. The Outlook offline mode is increasingly less critical now that I have a Blackberry. Outlook works well as a filing cabinet, but I assume Gmail will catch up on that front; it is their core competency. Replacing Outlook would give some withdrawal pangs, but I can probably deal with it.

4. Excel. This is one program where Microsoft did an absolutely outstanding job. It enables a very high degree of sophistication, without overwhelming the novice/occasional user. Lots of start-ups talk about creating a programming environment that non-programmers can use, but Excel is the one that actually fulfills this promise. It seems to be stable. It is also the most natural candidate for collaboration as version control; with say 5 people updating a forecast, is a real pain and it is so easy to lock at the cell level. I would love to see something really industrial scale that allowed ‚Äúpower users‚Ä? to set up complex spreadsheets that are properly backed-up and maintained, with updates from lots of people according to classic user rights and permission control. I have seen some things that look close.


The barriers to entry in this game are less to do with the software – there seem to be a lot of start-ups with good products – and more do with the infrastructure to support millions of users. This is where Amazon could be a major player if they stay at the infrastructure layer and enable many start-ups to scale on their platform.

A more disruptive innovation could come from a P2P storage system (think Skype for your data). The Cleversafe technology could be an interesting enabler for this, as it also has great data security. A P2P solution based on Cleversafe might be scalable and secure; and perhaps be a platform for start-up Web Office players who don’t have the budget to build a big infrastructure.

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