Last week I had the chance to talk with Adobe ahead of time about their acquisition of Buzzword, the Flex-built word processor. This is an extremely interesting event as it signals one of the few “middle-ware,” Elder Companies companies going after not only applications, but also using a very pure SaaS model.
The Services/Products Themselves
I won’t spend much time telling you what Buzzword and Project “Share” are in this post. I anticipate many others will be able to do this for you, dear reader. In summary, however:
Buzzword: RIA Word Processing
Buzzword is an RIA word processor with desktop publishing functionality. It’s built on Flex, Adobe’s programatic layer on-top of Flash. This means it’s not HTML and Ajax, or an “web page.” That said, Buzzword is available on the web and should be considered as SaaS or piece of URL-based software.
While I haven’t used Buzzword extensively, it’s a moderately featured word processor. It works on more of a page-based, document model, or “desktop publishing,” rather than the web-minded document model you may be familiar with from Google Docs. For example: it puts in page numbers! That may sound trivial, but it’s a good indication of the lower-level assumptions of Buzzword vs. Google Docs.
The creators of Buzzword are ex-Lotus folks who’ve spent most of their professional lives building word processors; I had dinner with them back at Adobe Engage, so I can also vouch that they’re both interesting and nice ;>
Project “Share” is web hosted “hub” to collect and share out various documents (PDF, Doc, and images at the moment). You upload documents to “Share” and can then grant specific access (on a person or group[?] basis) to them or general access.
Most impressive for me is that “Share” provides Flash embeds that allow you to share the documents in web pages. Folks like Slideshare should probably check their freak-out gages at this point and see what, if anything, they should worry about in the way of competition.
Also, Project “Share” should sound strongly related to an existing Adobe SaaS offering, Adobe Document Center. Indeed, I’d wager you can expect the two of them to merge or at least work closely together. What would that mean? In quick terms, the wider-spread of “personal DRM” which is a terribly loaded phrase for “controlling and tracking access to your documents.”
“Personal DRM” can mean Big Brother to you or just more information about the documents you publish. For example, while you could use personal DRM to expire documents (“it’s $5 do read this document for 24 hours, $20 for a lifetime”), you could also use to answer “document usability” questions like “did anyone actually spend anytime reading past page 10 of this 60 page documents?”
Of course, “Share” is not really about that so much at the moment: it’s more about simply publishing documents to people, groups of people, or the general public.
Also of note: there are REST APIs in/for Project “Share.”
As mentioned above, Buzzword and Project “Share” establish Adobe as offering applications in the office space. What is this “application” notion?
In short, it means marketing software intended to be used by people to perform some task. A word processor vs. an application server, an accounting system vs. a database. Application servers and databases on their own are, largely, for programmers to create application for end-users (substitute “people” if you like the yearly, feel-good, marketing-semantic jargon re-assignment).
Selling applications directly to end-users is actually quite rare in the Big Company software world. Microsoft is the exception that tends to prove the rule here. Middleware providers like IBM and BEA do much of their sales through “partners” who work directly with the end-user, customizing the middle-ware to the end-user’s needs.
What’s even more rare is for an existing, Elder Company to use a SaaS model that cuts out partners and “the channel” (a fancy word for “people who help us sell our stuff”). With today’s application announcement, Adobe is becoming such a company, standing in contrast to companies like IBM and BEA that prefer to be the “company behind the company” that markets directly to the end-user.
Adobe’s creative (Photoshop, Premier, etc.) and PDF/Acrobat divisions probably give it the skill and will to follow such a model. That is, large, successful parts of the culture are built around selling directly to end-users rather than through others.
Still, this announcement is quite a big deal because it means Adobe has an entirely new line of business, namely a URL-based, SaaS “office suite.” Granted, there’s only a word processor (Buzzword), publishing mechanism (project “share”), and desktop sharing applications (Adobe Connect) at this point. However, you and I would be silly to think that Adobe will stop there (as they would be to stop there).
“Good luck storming the castle!”
Adobe will tell you that they are not out to one-to-one replicate Microsoft Office just as Google will. The point here, I am guessing on myself, is that Adobe is seeking to innovate on the Office experience rather than just supplant it. That’s a great strategy as, in my opinion, people will not switch from Office fast enough to support a business unless there are killer features available in the new offering. That is:
- The culture of using Office is well embedded.
- Switching from that culture requires high commitment and hassle on the part of the user-base.
- The user-base will only put up with that hassle if there are benefits from using the new office software that out-weigh the hassle and cost.
I, nor anyone else, is in a position to state positively if Adobe will have those killer features. That will require not only delivering the features, but seeing if the user-base (or “market”) likes them. That takes time.
That said, at least it’s something and for industry observers like me, that’s exciting…and not just in the tired way I typically use that word.
Microsoft Office, Google Docs
I’ve mentioned publicly several times that I’m very skeptical of any Web 2.0 software opening dislodging Office anytime soon. While I find things like Google Docs compelling, using them often for RedMonk work, I’m not sure if that’s just the nerd in me liking the software versus the typical office worker. Microsoft Office may seem frustrating and “old” to us nerds, but it’s rare that I meet a “citizen” (to use James’ excellent distinction) that even realized there could be other options. It’s sort of like gas vs. other energy sources: out of the border of practicality for rapid, wide-reaching change, equally fogged up with conspiracy theories.
Don’t mistake me for saying that defeating Microsoft Office is impossible. No, it’s just extremely difficult. Not to mention Google Docs, Zoho, and all manner of other Web 2.0 office folks…and, yes, Open Office, Apple iWork (you can pry Keynote from my cold, dead hands!), and other desktop bound office offerings.
Adobe’s two biggest challenges will be thawing the frozen understanding of what “office productively” applications are (Microsoft Office) and competing in the crowded “new office” landscape.
Like Google, Adobe can afford to dump into this market by providing free access with premium service. For software, this is par for course. The interesting division that a SaaS brings in, however, is that the URL-based, hosted nature of premium services may be difficult for other to compete with. This is theory, but my feel is that people still place value of URLs more so than packaged software.
Open source has invaded the cultural thinking of software pricing enough that a large enough chunk of IT spenders know to look for something free. URL-based offerings (or “services”) on the other hand can still seem like something “worth paying for.” More importantly, as all my bemoaning about roach-motels (and others about “social graphs”) shows, URLs are great ways to do lock-in.
This is worth noting, of course, because there was no mention of ads in the conversation I had last week. The revenue model was to instead charge for premium services, esp. through Project “Share.” Again, you can probably expect these to be the sort of “personal DRM” features you can see Duane and others demo during LiveCycle presentations.
The last issue for all URL-based applications is one of privacy. That is, if you’re saving all of your valuable information in the cloud, how do you prevent the service provider — here Adobe — from doing evil things?
Adobe’s response to this was two fold:
- We’re not a company whose core revenue is tied to optimizing and profiting from the search of information. In other words, Google. I have (some would say, stupid, blind) trust that Google won’t screw me over in GMail or Google Docs. But, as many people like to remind me, profiting from information is their core business. Maybe I should be more worried, these people tell me. Still, I remain quite sanguine on this front with Google.
- Second, people can encrypt their documents as part of the PDF spec, such that Adobe can’t even access them. I’m not sure if this applied to Buzzword as much as to Project “Share,” nor how limiting this would be on overall functionality. Nonetheless, it’s more than (most?) other SaaS’es offer.
I’m terrible at predicting how privacy-centric people will react to new services and promises like the above. Like I said, I’m a not overly concerned about these things to the degree that most privacy-centric people are. So, again, it’ll be an interesting reaction to track.
In summary, that Adobe is getting into the office applications market is an interesting event. The things to keep your eye on are:
- More technologies to fill out spreadsheets and presentation software. Obviously, applications in Flash, Flex, and AIR will be on the top of the list. Also, web-site building is a potential area as well. While Project “Share” offers you the code to embed Flash in web sites, there doesn’t appear to be an Adobe SaaS offering to create web-sites. Of course, Adobe has ColdFusion in-house. Also, something like wordpress.com would be interesting — no — esp. if they started exploiting the “pages” concept more in WP to provide more than just blogs.
- How do people react to using a Flex RIA? While Flash is big time for all sorts of things on the web — video, games, ads, etc — I’m not sure it’s use as a day-to-day applications has been tried out on web-scale. Sure, there are many people using it for their own applications.
- Will it work on Linux? Adobe has done much recently to catch up it’s Linux releases. Still, the Linux people get testy, quickly, and rightly so when they have to wait to play with Adobe’s toys.
The Whichard question, of course, would be “will RedMonk use it?” Good question, and the answer is probably no for now. We’ve already for Google Docs. I’m not a big fan of Google Docs on it’s own, but having it integrated into our overall RedMonk IT is nice – being able to share and track changes is great. Also, there’s a question if it’ll work for Steve on Linux.
Personally, I’d use it just to try out a new shiny object. I’ve gotten to like Apple Pages recently, but there’s no collaborative features in it which means it’s only good for a first draft of a collaborative documents. But, moving in more desktop publishing functionality — page numbers, templates, etc. — into a SaaS office suite would be welcome to me. If anything, hopefully the Buzzword acquisition will accelerate changes in the overall SaaS office market.
Disclaimer: Adobe is a client, as are parts of Microsoft.