Richard Waters -- West Coast editor US -- did a useful summary & analysis today of the new Web-enabled forms of the office suite in the Technology section of the Financial Times (subscription only): "Time for a virtual war over Office work?"
Zoho (offers nearly all categories here, actually)
Gmail (needs no introduction)
Jason Fried, founder of 37 Signals:
"Software is too complex. People don't need all this stuff."
"That [says Waters] addresses a weakness in the Office suite of software applications that even Microsoft has acknowledged: "feature inflation" has created an over-complex product and most users benefit from only a small part of the capability. Drawing on the lessons of successful online applications from iTunes to eBay, the creators of the new productivity services have designed their sights to be as easy to use as possible."
Microsoft's response in this environment is to launch Office Live and to tier their Office product list into versions from lightest to heaviest. This at a glance looks the right strategy for them, but the question is begged: will young people or organizations choose the known pariah, Microsoft, when online productivity services are on a level playing field, can be turned on or off more or less by the click of the little 'x' in the top right-hand corner of the browser?
[This, incidentally, suggests how documents will behave under the OpenDocument regime: more like a web page that you can click on and edit, with any common tool (like a browser) that's laying around.]
Echoing around in my ears is Peter Quinn's assessment of his then workforce in The Commonwealth:
"...most users are content-consumers. They just never use most of the stuff we've bought."
It is especially critical for Microsoft to separate the common tools from the high-end. If they stayed doggedly tied to the one-size-fits-all approach, the markets would fade away from them to the low-end. This is supported by innovation theory, particularly by Clayton Christiansen's work on disruptive innovation, on which I've commented before. If you look on the chart on that post, Microsoft's high-end, deeply infrastructure-tied products are moving today well above the upper bound of common utility, while alternatives are presently entering the range at the lower end.
Microsoft must compete at the low end; trouble is this means obvious profit cannibalization, as their high-end stack suggests a less-than-10-percent solution that's suitable only for large organizations (opinion). I would be more certain of that company's coming existential crisis, however, if they were ignoring the low-end right now in the PR pump leading up to Vista: with the early focus on consumer benefits, their messaging for Vista is practically faultless so far (although there is confusion right now about Vista's relevance in the enterprise...we'll see).
"These new web-based applications have one other important common characteristic: the ability to share."
Scott Dietzen, CTO of Zimbra:
"The web itself is emerging as a collaboration platform."
Sam Schillace, co-founder of Upstartle, incubator of Writely:
"It is not such a leap for the mass market as it was a couple of years ago. For most of us our machines aren't that useful when they aren't connected to the internet."
To this I'll merely add a vision I had last week on the Acela coming back to New York from Boston. I was thinking of the Little Green Laptop and how hollowed out common PC's & notebooks are becoming, prices falling indefinitely (think about how heavy a 1994-era 486 was compared to a modern Dell Optiplex). Soon enough they will be commodities: plentiful, ubiquitous like sugar, coffee, natural gas, porkbellies; no need for a hard drive, even, with Compact Flash drives on a Micro ITX platform. Certainly that's the goal of the very bright distributution strategy Negroponte has devised of selling in one-million-unit quantities to national governments only -- where in poor areas the laptops will be so plentiful as to have no street value for trade or theft.
Now, if this is the direction of hardware it strains not the imagination that on a stroll down the isle of Acela's Business Class, one could, without much bother, kindly request the use of a fellow traveler's laptop to quickly check email, field and edit a key document, post a mission-critical message, make a life-saving medical recommendation, execute a profitable portfolio re-allocation or lay down a losing punt on Barcelona v. Chelsea. This on someone else's machine...without even the trouble it takes to borrow someone else's cell phone for an urgent call.
The flex-office takes new meaning when PCs and notebooks are fungible, like bicycles on campus in the Bohemian early 1980's: you would just take the nearest one and yours would show up later somewhere across campus, ostensibly none the worse for wear. This vision also accommodates the possibility of an individual moving across OS platforms seemlessly of their day -- like I already do between Mac OS X, Linux or Windows. Horses for courses.
Thank you Richard!