Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Microsoft Announces Web Office... Google Has Decisions To Make

As I wrote long ago, Google Documents has an inferior user experience because it tries to do word processing in the browser without a plug-in such as Flash. Now, Microsoft is announcing that they will be bringing Office to the browser. Rest assured, that Microsoft's new web Office suite will use Silverlight, their Flash competitor, and will therefore not be hamstrung by the insufficiency of standard browser rendering.

Unless HTML is changed radically, (and given the politics of HTML 5 that seems unlikely in my lifetime) it will be impossible to build a good word processor based on HTML.

Google has been almost religiously opposed to using Adobe Flash for anything but video. But now that Microsoft is about to bring out a web based office suite, Google is going to have to decide what to do here. If they remain on their current, pure HTML-based course, and Microsoft moves to Silverlight, Microsoft will eat Google's lunch. There is absolutely no reason to use Google's platform if Microsoft's web Office  does what Google's apps do, but behaves more like real desktop applications - and in fact behaves more like the real office. Google can never achieve this type of user experience with an HTML only strategy.

The stakes here are significant. Google wants to be competitive in the office document business, but adheres to a religious philosophy that almost guarantee's long term failure. But Google has become a very big, much slower moving company. I am curious to see if they can adjust their religious phliosophy sufficiently to play in this market once Microsoft launches their web Office products.


  1. You're forgetting one important thing: JavaScript is getting faster by leaps and bounds. If it continues at this pace, we should be able to do in-browser word processing with an experience just like a desktop app VERY soon (heck, look at what the guys at 280slides have done already with PowerPoint). I suspect that at that point (who knows, maybe it's already in development) Google is likely to abandon the HTML only strategy.

    Google is playing the long game here. It's more in their long-term interest to squash proprietary technologies (Flash, Silverlight, MS-Office, etc...) and optimize experience for the web and for browsers than it is to beat MS in the Office wars. Google can afford to fail in a web-based office venture. I'm not saying they would like it, but they could withstand it since their business is fairly diversified. By comparison, MS can't afford ANY erosion on the Office front. They only really make serious money on Windows and Office, and they desperately need to preserve the Office revenue stream or they will sink. Furthermore, it is in Microsoft's interest to get people back on platforms they control, since that is where they have traditionally derived their competitive advantage.

  2. The problem has nothing to do with the speed of Javascript. It has to do with HTML and its text handling. A faster Javascript cant fix that. And if Google is playing the "long" game here, willing to purposely giving up an opportunity to succeed over a religious argument, then so be it. If that is their philosophy, they certainly should have waited on video to be built into the browser rather than depend on flash.

  3. I don't see Google's commitment to Javascript as religious. They have a strong preference for using one of their four standard languages (Javascript, Java, Python, C++, according to John Lam http://www.iunknown.com/2007/06/steve-yegge-por.html), but they have used Flash in the past when they could gain competitive advantage by doing so.

    For instance, Google Finance:

    Given the Javascript wizardry they've demonstrated in Maps (live route-finding, then drawing with VML in IE and SVG in Firefox), Google could have implemented much or all of the charts coolness without resorting to Flash. But Flash was an easy win, so they went for it.

    Agree, though, that it will be tough for Google Docs' word processor to compete with one written in Silverlight by the folks who wrote Word. I wonder about the viability of the Writely code base. Zoho looks and works better using JS-only, but when you compare it to Buzzword, or to the sophisticated graphical tools in something like Aviary, it's clear that the ceiling for Ajax-based productivity tools is way below that of Flash-based.

  4. What insufficiency in text rendering are you referring to? Safari (and thus Google Chrome) can now even mask images over text and display text at different angles, so I think they're quickly closing the gap over what Flash can do (and not have to deal with Flash's proprietary way of rendering/antialiasing fonts). I could see Google offering advanced features for their office stuff only to Safari/Chrome users and encouraging people to upgrade until Firefox and IE catch up. Other than that, I can't imagine a majority of users needing more than the basics that Google Docs already has.

  5. Anonymous,

    HTML has no capacity for drawing text at an angle or for precisely positioning any text on the screen. This is very complex functionality and it just doesnt exist in HTML. If you have seen graphics drawn at an angle, it wasnt done using HTML, but perhaps using some graphics functionality. If there is something that I am not aware of in safari(Which I doubt), it is certainly not in IE or Firefox, and is not part of the official standard. Adding such stuff to the standard is very far away, and text rendering is at the core of what a browser does. Such enhancements will be non-trivial.

  6. Skott,

    I agree that writely will be hitting a brick wall. As I see it this was a bad strategic decision since they really need to be investing in something that will let them compete.

  7. I acknowledged in my comment that it is a Safari-only (and Chrome-only by extension when the feature makes its way up) feature for now and would have to be something that non-Safari users would have to wait for IE/Firefox to support (and it'd be a compelling reason for people to switch to Safari/Chrome if they require it... maybe stuff like this is why Google is making a WebKit-based browser to begin with). It's called CSS Transformations:

    Although I really don't see rotatable text as a die-hard feature that a majority of users would need. I would be surprised if a majority of Word users even know that they can rotate text or be able to figure out how to do it.

    By the way, do you know your comment captchas aren't displaying in Safari at the moment?

  8. Anonymous,

    Actually, the functionality I am talking about needing is not text rotation, but the ability to precisely measure and position text. This is necessary to do something like buzzword and is built into flash and silverlight. You need this kind of positioning to do something as basic as tabs and as sophisticated as wrapping graphics around text.

    Regarding captchas, yeah, they suck. I am trying to switch from blogger to wordpress and having a hell of a time.

  9. OK, I just tried rotating text in Word 2008 on Mac and Word 2003 in Windows and gave up. In face I think Word explicitly doesn't allow it. I made a "Text Box" and saw "Rotate" in its properties, but it was grayed out. The best I could do was make the text direction be a full 90 degrees. So that's one leg up that Google will have with WebKit. :)

    And as far as absolute text positioning goes, I'd again like to see you try to do it in word. You can with text boxes (which I'm not sure how many people know how to use...) but even that is limited to some weird grid when I drag it around. Word is generally restricted to typing text from the type and using page breaks and tabs/spaces to move things up and over which can easily be replicated with HTML/CSS. I would never use Word for anything extremely precise and I'd probably limit myself to the same fonts that browsers are limited to if I planned on handing something off to someone.

  10. Anonymous,

    First of all, Word does allow rotating of text. Perhaps the UI isnt good enough to find it but its there.

    But I certainly wouldnt say that is important either way!

    Regarding precise positioning of text, I promise word does it very well. Not as well as Quark, but really well. On the other hand, HTML can't do **TABS**. Knowing where text breaks and being able to control that is critical to competing with Word. People depend on knowing that a document will render and look the same no matter what. This is the most basic requirement of a word processor in 2008. It was a basic requirement of a word processor in 1998, or even 1988 on the mac.

    But the point is it is *impossible* to do what word does in HTML. If they could they would. And this is why when Microsoft comes out with this next version of office, it will kill Google because Google docs will look anemic by comparison.

  11. Am I the only one thinking Chrome can be Google's answer to Flash/Silverlight? When you have enough installment base, you can distribute whatever runtime/VM or (evilly) alter the HTML/JS spec. And when the user doesn't use Chrome, just fallback to primitive HTML rendering.

    It's hard to believe companies like Google aren't actively anticipating their competitors' next moves. Delivering Office on Silverlight is so obvious. (I'm wondering if Volta will play a part...)

  12. "Google wants to be competitive in the office document business, "

    AFAIK the *business* of Google is advertising; all the other are *proxies* to earn money with advertising.

    And , forget about Google using any *closed* technology like Flash or Silverlight ; their strategy is remain as open as possible

  13. @hank... Word allows text to be rotated at 90 degree angles but nothing inbetween... only images can be, I personally find it quite frustrating.

    Oh and out of curiosity, when I use Google Docs for anything apart from simple notetaking it's a very annoying experience when trying to format etc... if Web Office uses Silverlight will that kind of thing be a lot better?

  14. The strongest features in Google Docs are clearly document sharing and ubiquity -- which are reflective of its HTML core. Editing works well if you think like a web developer and are comfortable with standard HTML formatting for basic headings and structure and using CSS for customization.

  15. What makes you think Buzzword is going to support tabs the way Word does them any time soon? Usually Flash only supports a very limited set of text formatting capabilities compared to HTML/CSS anyways, besides its ability to control things like antialiasing a little more specifically (though I only find one of the options very usable).

    Right now Buzzword seems to be a little buggy with supporting the tab character as just a wide spacer let alone spacing tabs out into columns. Google Docs supports tabs as wide spacers. I think with some fancy CSS and JavaScript, they could come up with a way to get them to work as columns. Create divs before each tab and give them even spacing, or put things into borderless tables. I think you're misunderstanding the capabilities of HTML/CSS as they are right now and what they may be capable of in the future. There's already specs in CSS for supporting multi-column text easily and WebKit already supports it, for example. In Google Presentations, you can drag text around and in Safari on OS X you can right-click on a text box, click 'Show Fonts' and get the same text-editing capabilities that you can get in any OS X text editing application.

  16. "What makes you think Buzzword is going to support tabs the way Word does them any time soon? Usually Flash only supports a very limited set of text formatting capabilities compared to HTML/CSS anyways, besides its ability to control things like antialiasing a little more specifically (though I only find one of the options very usable)."

    Please read the flash documentation more closely. This is totally incorrect.

    "Right now Buzzword seems to be a little buggy with supporting the tab character as just a wide spacer let alone spacing tabs out into columns."

    This is totally incorrect. Buzzword has a ruler and you can set precise tab positions - something that you can absolutely not do with HTML/CSS.

  17. I'm rather surprised that SVG hasn't been mentioned as a valid web platform for delivering a word processor. It's text manipulations are more impressive than 98% of people realize. You can lay text on arbitrary bezier curves, rotate it, pretty much anything any word processor can do and more. It is possible to dynamically create SVG documents, and with the next release of webkit, the SVG support and Javascript speed across every major browser (obviously save the elephant in the living room -- IE) will be sufficient to create and animate SVG elements (including text) even without SMIL. Why has SVG been screwed over and ignored so much? I understand the Adobe / Microsoft Flash / Silverlight resistance so they can push their own proprietary format, but right now SVG support is good enough in every browser besides IE that SVG pages capable of amazing things can be presented to 42% of internet traffic. Writing this has gotten me angry. IE is ruining a web standard by denying that 58% access to it. Argh, I hate MS.


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