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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Office: online vs. offline

Some people think the future of the office app is online. They are looking to apps such as Writely (for word processing) and NumSum (for spread sheets) to pioneer the development and to "crush" MS Office. Google recently bought Writely, and is working on a Google Spreadsheet. In fact, there are already quite well developed browser-based suites out there - take a look at ThinkFree, which has been going since 2001 (although they use Java instead of AJAX, so aren't as "cool".)

I've used many of these. But I've also downloaded the Office 2007 beta.

The online apps suffer from many flaws. First, they only work if you're online. Believe or not, there are still times and places in this world where you can't get on the net. Then there is the cross-compatibilty issues of web apps: their heavy use of javascript means they'll often fail in some browsers. The large Java-based apps take a long time to load. Finally, and most critically: they're lame.

The online apps are just about good enough for writing simple letters or maybe summing totals in a spreadsheet (NumSum even try to suggest that having a wide variety of features is a problem!). Writely, NumSum and the new Google Spreadsheet would be useful for quickly sharing simple bits of information, perhaps within a club or sports team for example. "Mom and pop" may well find these more accessible - certainly cheaper - than a full office suite.

However they are useless for anything complex, even something as straight foward as a school assignment using styles, headers, table of contents, perhaps some tables and graphs etc. Maybe one day they will rival the functionality of desktop apps, but that day is a long time away. The writing is most definitely not on the wall, as some say.

If anything, the day web-based apps replace office suite will never arrive, for if they were to fully match their desktop-based brethen, they would have to become their brethen. There's no magic in javascript that means it can do what C can in a fraction of the code.

Back to Office. Office 2007 is an incredible piece of software. Its new interface is a joy to use and is far more intuitive than the old buttons-and-menus interface. It's certainly the biggest change in the suite's history - 2003 resembles 2.0 (which I still have) in many ways - but there's practically no learning curve to it. It's so much easier to find and use functions, and is the most compelling upgrade to Office since 2000. Additionally, Office 2007 loads and closes faster than its predecessors - impressive.

This is perhaps some people wish Sun had done with OpenOffice.org/Star Office's interface. But there's a good reason why OOo/SO is just a (poor) clone of Office 2003: it costs a huge amount of money and takes a large skills base to do sufficient testing to ensure a radical new interface actually works. Microsoft has these resources; Sun does not! If Sun had attempted to come up with a new interpretation of the office suite, I doubt it would have done a good job.

But what if you want to collaborate on work? Well, people often want to share documents, and network drives have always made that easy within the office environment. For more advancded use there's Microsoft's Sharepoint. The likes of box.net make sharing of files across the wider internet easy for anyone, too. Office has versioning functionality so it's easy to see who has done what.

Most importantly though, the best work isn't done by two people sitting at the same keyboard (which sometimes seems to be the logical conclusion of the hype of collaboration). The best work comes from letting one person who's qualified for the job get on with it, and then submit the work to peer review in one form or another. It's not new nor sexy, but there it is.

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