by Mike Masnick

Office 2.0 Not About The Online Spreadsheets -- But The Next Attempt At Situated Software

from the next-crack-at-the-bat dept

Last week at the Office 2.0 conference, while we were there to announce the coming of our new Techdirt Insight Community service, lots of other companies were showcasing their wares as well. The running joke, though, was that everyone was releasing an online spreadsheet (we even started joking to people that our next offering would be the Techdirt spreadsheet). It seemed that too many companies are focusing on simply taking the traditional desktop office suite and moving it online. While there may be some market in doing so, it's going to be a tough run for any company not named Microsoft or Google to make much headway there. Microsoft is already talking up the possibilities, while Google's bundling of its online spreadsheet and word processor only herald a more complete online offering. At the same time, online office suites from the likes of Zoho, Joyent and Thinkfree, while impressive technically speaking, really have a long way to go in convincing apathetic customers that it's worth switching. The trick, of course, is to really offer something new. Something different that's so powerful it makes switching not just a way to shake off a Microsoft addiction, but to let you do things that just couldn't be done before. Right now, about all the online office suites can really do is focus on their collaboration features -- which is a start, and enough for some, but probably not enough to really drive adoption.

It seemed like what was really more interesting about companies at Office 2.0 wasn't the rebuilding of office suites online, but the rise of a next generation of companies looking to take a turn at bat on the challenge of "situated" or "situational" software. That's software that people (not necessarily programmers) design for themselves or a small group to use, to fill a specific need, rather than simply using a mass market product that's built for scale. This isn't a new idea, and there have been many attempts. We first mentioned former Microsoftie Charles Simonyi's efforts in this space more than three years ago -- at which point we were skeptical you could ever make it as easy to create programs as it was to create PowerPoint presentations. However, as more details were released, it sounded much more interesting. In 2004, Clay Shirky wrote an essay about how he kept seeing people working on "situated software" projects rather than large scaleable projects, and the space took on a nice name. Since then, companies like Ning and Jotspot have both tried to get into the space, but neither has been a huge hit.

One thing that became clear last week, though, was that a new generation is trying to tackle the same challenge, and they're clearly learning from what came before them. Companies like Coghead, Intensil, ActiveGrid and Teqlo all were taking different approaches towards this idea of quickly built, very specialized software applications and services. The first three all seem more targeted directly at techies -- allowing them to build apps faster than they can already. Whether or not they just use this for rapid prototyping or to build out real apps remains to be seen. There's also the question of how much value these offerings add to techies who are already adept at building at app quickly using existing tools like PHP or Ruby on Rails. Teqlo, with new CEO Jeff Nolan (fresh from nearly a decade stirring up trouble at SAP), looks to be taking a step further, trying to help even those who are less tech savvy be able to create useful apps, connect them, and share them. As with any space that has had a few attempts without a real success, it does seem like there's a huge opportunity hidden within all this activity -- but the real success is going to come down to execution. One of these days, a company will figure out what that secret killer app is for this space, that makes it so just about anyone can easily understand and appreciate the value of being able to plug together an instant, useful, specialized app. It definitely seems like the vision that Telqo is shooting for, though the company is still quite new and will need some time to find that right formula. However, if it can, it's a huge opportunity to shake up the applications business in a way no simple online spreadsheet is likely to do any time soon.

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  • identicon
    Trustworthiness 2.0, 16 Oct 2006 @ 10:06pm

    The real killer app in 2.0 will be trustworthiness

    Are people willing to trust any of these 2.0 services with their company's documents and spreadsheets? I think even small businesses will probably wait and see.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jerry Kew, 17 Oct 2006 @ 1:46am

    Kleenex code

    30 years ago, if you wanted to do financial forecasting, you brought in a team to build apps for you in languages like APL for example. Then came the spreadsheet, and business people now build spreadsheets from scratch and then throw them away. The same will be one day true with business functionality and processes, that is where these people are headed. (I call it 'To define is to deliver')


    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Hyther, 17 Oct 2006 @ 10:24pm

    Situated software

    Software that solves situated needs and catering the long tail is going to be next generation web-based spreadsheets. The challenge is to allow creating such web applications by just pointing to an URL, without much coding efforts. At zoho, we have been thinking on the same lines.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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