I can’t remember when I first came across Writely, but I can tell you that I started to use it more often after being reminded of the service in this post from MIT’s Al Essa. Ironically, I found myself somewhat reluctant to let go of Open Office for such tasks simply because that’s what I’m used to; I say ironically because this is precisely the same problem Open Office itself faces in trying to unseat its Microsoft counterpart.
Anyhow, as probably everyone is aware of by now, Google – going against the Not Invented Here reputation they have in some quarters – acquired Writely yesterday. This is interesting to me on several levels, so I thought I’d do a quick Q&A.
Q: Ok, let’s start with a bit of background on Writely. What’s your experience with the tool or company?
A: Unlike some of the folks behind other online Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) tools, I have never spoken to the folks behind Writely. I’ve used it for a little while, though not extensively. A couple of things I’ve tried it for:
- Helping brush up a friend of mine’s resume; this was far easier than shooting Word documents back and forth via email
- Trying to review a design requirements document from the same friend; it gagged on the > 3 MB file
- Producing an outline for an upcoming project; it was more than adequate for this task
- Reviewing a publication authored by one of my colleagues and edited by the other; Writely
As the above tasks indicate, Writely is a very capable tool for the type of light editing and authoring that comprises the majority of necessary word processing work. It falls down on highly complex or abnormally large documents, but for an application positioned as Writely is that’s probably acceptable – for now.
Perhaps most importantly, Writely just works – the latency, in my limited experience anyhow, is perfectly acceptable.
Q: What are ‘levels’ that you mentioned earlier – why is this acquisition interesting?
A: There are multiple angles to consider, among them: the emerging potential for a GOffice offering, the broader implications for Web 2.0 firms, the MacArthur-esque island hopping/innovation potential here, and lastly, what Simon said: that Google now has an ODF offering.
Q: Let’s tackle those in order – what do you think a GOffice would look like?
A: Here’s what I said back in June about that possibility:
Might we be looking at an end around towards Google based office services?…
So is it possible to envision a scenario in which Google decides to implement the following:
1. Basic calendaring system as youd find in Yahoo Mail (only its actually usable given the performance)
2. POP/IMAP access for clients
3. Forwarding/domain services
and we see SMBs start to consider it? I think so.
Now add to that Writely, which presumably could be integrated nicely into an office “suite” – and I use the term loosely – that would offer the majority of the features that most of us would ever need. As a service. A cross-platform service. Google could offer a truly usable email, instant messaging, calendaring and word processing functionality over the operating system independent network.
Would this obviate the need for something like Microsoft Office or Open Office? Of course not. It doesn’t include spreadsheeting (though there are multiple players that could be acquired there – iRows or Jot Tracker among them) or presentation capabilities, for one, and more importantly it doesn’t match Microsoft’s offering in particular feature for feature. Nor does it aspire to. But of course that’s part of the point.
Q: What do you mean that’s part of the point?
A: It comes back to the question of innovation. Many believe that Microsoft has overdelivered innovation to its Office customers, which is why many feel a distinct lack of motivation to upgrade. Friend of RedMonk Stephe Walli puts it best here:
The interesting thing is the dilemma [Microsoft] faces. They have to continue to deliver new product releases with new features and functions. That’s what Wall Street rewards them for doing. And the incumbent is even brilliantly creating new innovations in the space and could be working feverishly to deliver them. But the bulk of their customers are over served. They can’t eat the last round of innovations. Why would they want to pay for the next round? Remember, economically, innovation is a supply side activity customers just want to buy solutions and they don’t want to buy things they don’t use regardless of how innovative they might indeed be.
Microsoft has continued to pack features into Office at steady rate over the years, raising questions of customer appetite for said features. How many of us truly use even 75% of what Microsoft Word, as an example, offers us? My argument is few, hence the relevance of less functional but potentially more usable packages like Writely. That’s part of it. But there’s also the question of where to innovate.
Q: Where to innovate? What do you mean?
A: Well, as I discussed in RedMonk’s inaugural podcast (will be up soon and I’ll point to it) there are those who’d contend that trying to match Microsoft feature by feature, as Open Office sometimes does, is more or less a losing proposition. Another Friend of RedMonk, Ubuntu’s Jeff Waugh, for example, said the following in making the case for GNOME Office:
OpenOffice.org is not aggressively competitive with Microsoft Office – its playing to match the feature matrix instead of leapfrogging and defining new ground to fight on. That is not a winning strategy, particularly when the stakes involve the future of Software Freedom in the hands of users around the world.
Whether or not you agree with the concept of (yet) another office suite, the point around innovation is well taken. As MacArthur proved during World War II, sometimes the best strategy is not competing head on, but by bypassing the argument altogether.
Thus Writely doesn’t try and compete with Microsoft by having, say, mail merge capabilities, but rather adds something that Office doesn’t (currently) have – online collaborative editing. Google’s done this effectively before with its Gmail, although in its aggressive reconsideration of application user interfaces they can occasionally go too far, as they have – IMO – with Google Reader which I won’t use (unlike a couple of folks from the Denver Tech Meetup last night).
Q: So these have been mainly specific considerations with respect to Writely’s application area – office type functionality. What do you think this acquisition can teach us about the likelihood of other Web 2.0ish acquisitions?
A: Well, it should first be noted of course that the acquisition of these or similar firms is de rigeur in this industry. As I discussed with one reporter today, startups can in some ways be seen as the outsourcing of innovation by larger firms. Here’s how Paul Graham put it:
In many businesses, it just makes more sense for companies to get technology by buying startups rather than developing it in house. You pay more, but there is less risk, and risk is what big companies don’t want. It makes the guys developing the technology more accountable, because they only get paid if they build the winner. And you end up with better technology, created faster, because things are made in the innovative atmosphere of startups instead of the bureaucratic atmosphere of big companies.
How does this apply to Writely? It’s a bit unclear.
As James noted on today’s podcast, at least from appearances Writely is an ASP.net app (which perhaps gives credence to Tim’s point here – and to the claims I’ve heard from the Mono folks periodically), which doesn’t seem to fit Google’s overall language/platform strategy.
Throw in the fact that I’ve been told by folks who know that Google is not particularly fond of paying for technology – they’d rather buy people, with obvious exceptions like Pyra or, more recently, MeasureMap – and it’s apparent that Writely had something Google liked. Which piece that is is open for debate.
Q: But what does this mean for Writely-like startups?
A: Perhaps nothing, it’s difficult to say. But a point that I’ve made many times in the past is that scalability, while never easy, is particularly challenging for smaller startups. SaaS in that fashion is both blessing and curse: the good news is that you have a potentially infinite customer base, and the bad news is that…you guessed it…you have a potentially infinite customer base.
And while Google’s not perfect with respect to scalability, as the occasional Gmail outages indicate (and as Cote notes, it’s interesting that post acquisition Writely has closed its doors – perhaps to avoid a Google Analytics like crash), they are certainly more resources at their disposal than does Writely, or virtually any other startup. Because while open source can compress the total cost of software, it does little or nothing to lessen the outlay for hardware, networking, bandwidth, etc.
So what does it mean? Certainly not that every Web 2.0 startup must flip to be successful. But definitely that that remains a very viable (and usually attractive) prospect.
Q: Ok, last point – ODF. What does this mean for that standard?
A: As Bob Sutor noted in November, Writely was one of the first services out of the gate to support the Open Document Format – alongside, of course, Microsoft’s Office format. That was interesting, as has been Google’s subtle but documented interest in the Open Office.org project. But now, as Simon noted – Google will actually be shipping an ODF compliant editor. One that, presumably, will ultimately be available for anyone and everyone.
Does that make a difference in the standard? Opinions on the OO.o listserv differ, but for my money it does. What the ODF crowd could use more than anything else is a growing body of documentation created and saved to the ODF format; Writely, if nothing else, could provide that. So while this move certainly does little for the fortunes of ODF within the enterprise, it’s not just another implementation of the standard – it’s one that may actually see a sizable audience. Think volume.
Q: Any other parting thoughts?
A: Just that I’d love to see Writely continue to innovate in different directions; don’t try and be Word. Leave that to other projects; I’d much prefer to begin to see things like wiki features make their way into the package.