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Can Web Based Office Applications Replace Microsoft Office?
Ed Kohler
Om Malik reports that 17 companies are currently building web based Office applications. Impressive, but do we really need web based Office applications? In my opinion, absolutely. Microsoft Office has failed to figure out how to integrate the feature people crave most for their office documents: collaboration tools.

Collaboration of Microsoft applications involves saving a document, then emailing it to someone for revisions, during which time your productivity grinds to a halt so you don't create changes that will be overwritten by your colleague's revisions. Hopefully, the two of you are on the same network so you can work off the same document (one at a time) rather than emailing it back and forth over and over again. Adding more than one person into this process turns into something close to the inverse of Metcalfe's Law, where with each additional editor added to a document the productivity is square rooted.

Compare that to web applications like Writely where a person can start a document and immediately add additional collaborators. Everyone works off the same document, all revisions are recorded by contributor and time. Email is used to comment about the document, but not to send the document itself. Collaborators can be anywhere in the world with web access and no software beyond the browser that came installed for free.

Sure, Microsoft Word offers more fonts, integrates better with spreadsheets for mail merges, has more powerful spelling auto-correction (today) and has drawing tools, but is that really what people are looking for in a word processor? In my opinion, real productivity comes from easy collaboration more than any other feature.

Malik offers sage advice for developers focusing on web office applications:

"Web Office should not be about replacing the old, but inventing the new web apps that solve some specific problems."

True, but I believe web office can also replace the old by taking a fresh look at what really matters from a productivity standpoint. Put that together with solving nagging Office issues that can be better addressed by web applications, like better collaboration, and you'll have a winner.

PS: This was written on a computer without Microsoft Office installed, using


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1. Posted by: Roald Marth on August 27, 2006 9:03 PM:

Great thinking Ed, I thought I would add some "easy collaboration" by adding a comment.....I actually run into lots of people who don't believe YET that the future is Web Aps....surely none of our readers. When laptops are banned from airplanes, you will check into a hotel with an Interent Appliance on the desk (likley sponsored by Google) and log into your OnlineOffice. Oh, and they will give you all the liquids and gels you need like toothpaste and deodorant. No luggage at all seems like the future of travel.

2. Posted by: Ed Kohler on August 27, 2006 9:29 PM:

Interesting thinking there, Roald. Personally, I think those Internet Appliances will be cheap desktops, since you can get them for next to nothing and run run web apps on them. Maybe Ubuntu would be a good choice for web terminals at hotels, since they'd be less susceptible to viruses and eliminate much of the software costs compared to running a Windows or Mac OS?

3. Posted by: Roald Marth on August 27, 2006 10:30 PM:

I think you are right on about the hardware devices.....I just can't see the PC's in the hotels running Windows with all the viruses and whatnot.....they will have to be as easy and reliable to use as the TV.....although I still can't get the alarm clocks in most hotels to we will see if in the future this Internet Devices can be made easy and reliable enough to use. I barely can keep my own notebook running with a team of professionals at my finger tips.

4. Posted by: Liam @ Web 2.5 Blog on August 27, 2006 10:41 PM:

There's more to this story... web office apps apparently don't spread virally, unlike consumer web services. That's a problem, as IT depts aren't going to take the lead in pushing these solutions; they have to be driven by users. See the Web 2.5 blog (which was linked by Om) for more on this...

5. Posted by: Ed Kohler on August 27, 2006 10:59 PM:

Liam, thanks for pointing out your work on this issue. I disagree with you about the viral nature of web office apps. They certainly haven't hit a critical mass yet to see an explosive viral ramp-up, but I can imagine Microsoft Office workers worrying about that happening any day now.

I've grown my network of Writely users over time, but at a much slower rate than my social network rates. There are people I consider friends who I'd rarely - if ever - collaborate with on a document, so they haven't been introduced through an early adopter like me.

I think college students are the key to ramping up web based work processing. If they find it convenient for collaborating on papers (they may have friends at other schools who could help them on a doc) or for working from their laptop, but printing in a computer lab, they could get turned onto the web based scene.

You're right that IT won't take the lead. They can't force people to use web applications. But a few progressive companies may look at their Office bills and take a serious look at what's out there today.

6. Posted by: Anonymous on August 28, 2006 1:33 PM:

As far as I know, "collaborative" result using Writely is stored/negotiated/updated/backed up using offsite storage, again sitting on Writely servers.
While no question there are niches for "collaboration":
The question is: who owns result of such "collaboration"? and what about privacy?

7. Posted by: Ed Kohler on August 28, 2006 4:50 PM:

Anonymous, I think the niche is pretty huge. Almost everything I write is intended for other people to read, and others may have a stake in what I write, so collaboration could happen both at the creation and publication level.

What has more privacy: a folder on a network where any number of people with rights or security set at the document level proactively allowing people to access it?

Collaboration rights: Interesting question. Within companies, I imagine the company generally owns the work regardless of who contributed to it. Is that what you have in mind?

8. Posted by: Anonymous on August 28, 2006 7:40 PM:

"...I think the niche is pretty huge..."

I'm not arguing that. However, don't overestimate -- what we are talking about here is basic document creation/editing -- it's not design collaboration tool either and/or should it become one -- I doubt it could be done on thin client (I'm talking about CAD system for example). Also, collaboration is not just "editing' something on paper -- it's usually much more, like talking to each other, seeing each other, having lunch with each other and etc....

"Collaboration rights..."

I meant, that with current Writely implementation, where as I stated "stored/negotiated/updated/backed up using offsite storage" belonging to Writely -- someone maybe very much concerned in using it for private types of "collaboration". Seriously, would you use it for "client-attorney" matters? If so, don't forget -- Writely will have a copy of that document...

9. Posted by: Ed Kohler on August 28, 2006 10:30 PM:

Anonymous, I think I've been clear that web based Office applications excel at collaboration over higher end features, like design and especially nothing near CAD. If you have to use design and CAD to prove your point, it sounds like we agree about the framing I provided.

When it comes to collaboration, I'm talking specifically about editing a document. Whether people meet, have lunch, etc., doesn't change what happens when people return to their computers.

Writely is owned by Google, so your privacy concerns should likely be based on whether you trust Google with your data. That's up to you to decide.

10. Posted by: Anonymous on August 28, 2006 11:52 PM:

maybe I wasn't clear then, but main point of my original message was exactly the one that you are not discussing in your article.
Let me repeat it here:
With current completely client implementation of Microsoft Office no concerns exist related to privacy. Meaning that only collaborators have access to the document content, even though they are using not that convenient and not real-time ways of collaboration by emailing back and forth different editions of the document. Assuming, clients and emails are not compromised -- there are no other "external" participants of such collaboration.

Contrary, and by design Writely(Google and or others) becomes technicaly participant of such collaboration (which may not be pleasant factor) and that is something that should be considered when talking about Microsoft Office replacement.

I'm not a linguist, no am I that good at writing, but to my knowledge word "replacement" means complete exclusion of something in favour of something else. Therefore, word "replacement" in the headline of your article and positive conclusion from the body of the article, In my opinion, was too strong and therefore I wrote my original post describing possible scenario when someone may not even consider Writely or equivalent.

11. Posted by: Ed Kohler on August 29, 2006 1:10 PM:

Thanks for clarifying, Anonymous.

I'm guilty as charged regarding the post headline.

On the privacy issue, people should understand the risks of using online services, and also the risks associated with storing content locally.

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