So, Microsoft have finally confirmed that a web-based version of Office is due soon.
That's good news. It means that Microsoft are responding to competition from Google and Zoho; hopefully in turn Google and Zoho will improve their products, which can only benefit the end consumer. It also means that the web has finally broached the biggest consumer software market in the world, the office suite. Web 2.0 has won!
However, while Web 2.0 might have won, I don't think the office suite will survive much longer. Microsoft, Google and Zoho may have faithfully reproduced the troika (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation) on the web, but its time has passed.
We've been stuck with these three applications for so long that it's difficult to see past them. But they've only survived due to network effects: everyone has them, because everyone else has them. It's time to re-examine their purpose.
First, the rise of the long tail. Because the browser is a general purpose platform, all sorts of special-purpose applications can be used instead of an office suite. Why use Microsoft Word to manage your CV, if you can use jobsite.co.uk instead, which gives you CV advice and links you to employers? Why use Excel to manage your personal finances, if you can use Mint.com, which automatically downloads, categorises and charts your bank accounts for you? Why use Powerpoint to explain your business, if you have a business website that does the same and is accessible to millions?
Second, the rise of the widget. Ever seen a video embedded in a spreadsheet, or an interactive calendar embedded in a presentation? I thought not! But because the browser is a general purpose platform, it's possible on the web. Many widgets like these that defy categorisation will spring up. Is it really a spreadsheet if you use it to post photos? Is it really a word processor if there is a table with formulas embedded? The spreadsheet, word processor and presentation will merge together into a single platform with many different widgets.
Finally, of course, the rise of collaboration. To an elder generation, something you did with the Nazis. To the younger generation, the whole point of content. If you can't see your friends, and make your content available to them, then they won't want it. That applies at work even more than outside work. The web office will be embedded inside a social network. It'll look more like Facebook than Powerpoint.
Microsoft's screenshots of the web version of Office look like they've faithfully reproduced Office in the browser. I think this approach will lead to a dead end. The all-powerful office suite is fading fast, and even the web can't save it.