Yesterday morning, I tossed out a hastily written post entitled It Must Be a Fun Time to Work on Microsoft Office which seems to have been misread by some folks based on some of the comments I’ve seen on my blog and in other places. So further exposition of some of the points in that post seems necessary.

First of all, there’s the question of who I was calling stupid when talking about the following announcements

  • Google announcing the launch of Presently, their Web-based Powerpoint clone. Interestingly enough, one would have expected presentation software to be the most obvious application to move to the Web first instead of the last.
  • Yahoo! announcing the purchase of Zimbra, a developer of a Web-based office productivity and collaboration suite.
  • Microsoft announcing the it would integrate Web-based storage and collaboration into it’s desktop office productivity suite.
  • IBM announcing that it would ship it’s own branded version of an Open Source clone of Microsoft’s desktop productivity suite.

Given that three of these announcements are about embracing the Web and the last one is about building disconnected desktop software, I assumed it was obvious who was jumping on a dying paradigm while the rest of the industry has already moved towards the next generation. To put this another way, James Robertson’s readers were right that I was talking about IBM.

There is something I did want to call out about James Robertson’s post. He wrote

People have moved on to the 80% solution that is the web UI, because the other advantages outweigh that loss of "richness".

I don’t believe that statement when it comes to office productivity software. I believe that the advantages of leveraging the Web are clear. From my perspective

  1. universal access to my data from any device or platform 
  2. enabling collaboration with “zero install” requirements on collaborators

are clear advantages that Web-based office productivity software has over disconnected desktop software.

It should be noted that neither of these advantages requires that the user interface is Web-based or that it is rich (i.e. AJAX or Flash if it is Web-based). Both of these things help but they aren’t a hard requirement.

What is important is universal access to my data via the Web. The reason I don’t have an iPhone is because I’m hooked on my Windows Mobile device because of the rich integration it has with my work email, calendar and tasks list. The applications on my phone aren’t Web-based, they are the equivalent of “desktop applications” for my phone. Secondly, I didn’t have to install them because they were already on my phone [actually I did have to install Oxios ToDo List but that’s only because the out-of-the-box task list synchronization in Windows Mobile 5 was less than optimal for my needs].

I used to think that having a Web-based interface was also inevitable but that position softened once I realized that you’ll need offline support which means building support for local storage + synchronization into the application (e.g. Google Reader's offline mode) to truly hit the 80/20 point for most people given how popular laptops are these days. However once you’ve built that platform, the same storage and synchronization engine could be used by a desktop application as well.

In that case, either way I get what I want. So desktop vs. Web-based UI doesn’t matter since they both have to stretch themselves to meet my needs. But it is probably a shorter jump to Web-enable the desktop applications than it is to offline-enable the Web applications.  

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