The Static Document Model Is Dying–RIP .doc, .xls, and .ppt

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My TechCrunch internship has ended, and for my final TechCrunchIT post, I wanted to connect the dots I see within the enterprise space. Thanks for the wonderful time.

When Writely and Zoho Writer launched three years ago, some quickly predicted the end for Microsoft Office. It seemed so obvious: free beats paid, ubiquitous access beats the device-centric, thick-client model.

But IT departments worry about security, Excel junkies remain skeptical of reduced functionality, and airline travelers are only now getting in-flight broadband. Given enough time, these problems will be solved.In the meantime, Microsoft isn’t a dunce. Once the lumbering Redmond giant shifts to a SaaS model and monetizes at the edges, these online clones of Microsoft Office will become commodities. Do you
prefer vanilla or chocolate frosting… Google or Microsoft?

Office documents are dead.

Not because Zoho Office and Google Docs are free. But because when office suites went online, they grabbed hold of the content creation method and promptly tipped it on its side. Writing a document shifted from multiple, one-shot drafts to a single draft with multiple revisions. Online office suites killed the static document model–and file formats. (Perhaps even toolbelt office suites.)

Historically, technology goes mainstream by solving a specific problem. Word processors replaced typewriters because they could fix typos. Dropbox removed worries about my hard drive failing. Online FAQ’s replace help files. Google Docs frees me to work from any browser.

Once mainstream, new technology shifts from facilitating work-flow to rewiring the process. I used Google Docs for several months before realizing the power to co-write. Instead of copy/paste, three of us worked on a single document from separate computers. (Lotus Notes pioneered this functionality twenty years ago, but it required Notes on each machine.)

Suddenly corporate wikis are maintained by users, links to Dropbox replace e-mail attachments, and the idea of a static document is dead.Slideshare is a classic example. What began as an online repository for slidedecks–a souped-up FTP for PowerPoint–is now a destination site. For now, the metadata–tags, favorites, comments, views, downloads, etc–sits on top of a static slideshow. But how long until Slideshare adds editing capability? Then I leave a comment by altering the wording, removing a non-Presentation Zen image there, adding an entire slide here.

When Slideshare spawned its own storytelling meme, “Meet Henry,” users made modified clones of the original slideshow to suit their needs. What if they could alter the original? The line between data and metadata could get very blurry. (The ensuing copyright nightmares are beyond the scope of this post.)

No matter which side of the firewall, it’s a living document–Rashmi from Slideshare told me: “Lots of companies use SlideShare privacy options for sharing and to embed into their intranets… we cannot dig
into it (for privacy reasons)–but one of our large referrers is Microsoft.”

Similarly, wiki’s are morphing from solving today’s problems into tomorrow’s new way to create, aggregate, and filter content. According to Chris Yeh, PBwiki has a long-term vision, “to be the really simple glue across an enterprise. By adding context on top of specific buckets–Salesforce, e-mail, documents, etc–wiki’s become a powerful form of enterprise search.”

Slideshare, wiki’s, SaaS office suites–what happens when they’re integrated? (Already you can view Google Docs from PBwiki and Slideshare from SocialText.)

After the inevitable confusion, the oil and water of new technology and old workflow will coalesce into a new perspective on information. Realtime collaboration will kill the static document model. The line between documents will feel artificial–much like a database view merely constrains the output. When the community can create metadata, “Word documents” become “a print-view” of the wiki
page”–perhaps excluding comments, or maybe limiting them to only comments from the marketing team within the past week. (Prezi is already rewriting the rules on UI and interaction.)

For Microsoft, using “.doc”, “.xls”, and “.ppt” in the same sentence as “floppy” and “AOL” is a frightening prospect. And yet maybe it shouldn’t be. If you can’t dominate a platform, the next best thing is making sure your competitors can’t win either. When files become generic, platform ownership is impossible–examples include .html, .txt, and .jpg.

RIP .doc, .xls, and .ppt. You’ll be missed.

  • RouletteGameOnline

    Very interesting

  • // » Zoho

    […] The Static Document Model Is Dying – RIP .doc, .xls, and .ppt ( […]

  • Jason M. Lemkin

    Great post. I wonder if the floppy/AOL example is the spot on one, or perhaps it’s more what’s happening to PDF in the days of the web, where the format gets pushed more and more to an archiving vehicle rather than an editing and authoring format. Ultimately docs need to be portable across web apps if nothing else so .xls, .ppt, .doc will be needed (even the x variants I guess) but perhaps only as resting and archive points. Their days as collaboration formats if nothing else are clearly on the wane.

  • Screen Sleuth

    Static *anything* is dying (why newspapers and magazines are dying), and it’s only a matter of time before dynamic mediums and devices rule the roost, so to speak.

  • mikx

    I recommend taking the next internship outside of an internet startup. Maybe in middle-management for a manufacturing company or in computer first-level support for sales people.

    You would be surprised how many people call the browser/internet “the blue e” (it’s what is on their desktop) and how many users are still puzzled by the concept of folders (on their local drive).

    Office documents as email attachements or on a network share are the spinal core of many corporate communication pipelines. And that won’t change anytime soon. Not because of technology – just because it takes years to change the behaviour of millions of users having something else to do.

    • Jeff Widman

      My last internship was an aerospace manufacturing company–sooo frustrating!

      Friendly people with a decent work ethic, but horrible change ethic.

  • Rurik Bradbury

    There are two small hitches:

    First, Zoho/Google Docs etc are all crappy in comparison with Office 2007. They have so much catch-up to do that it will be 5 years at least before any dent is felt.

    Second, apart from a poor user experience, the IT department will not accept these solutions for several reasons: directory integration; security; data ownership and privacy; app integration; plus a few others.

    TechCrunch has lots of interesting thoughts but they are too detached from the mechanics of how IT is actually deployed and used — so they end up sounding naive.

  • Pim

    Great post! It was like reading an article I could have written.

    @Rurik. Crappy? Clear you mean. It does exactly what it should do.
    And IT should listen to what their users want instead of deciding for them.

  • PBwiki in the news: Week of 3/9/2009 - The Daily Peanut

    […] The Static Document Model Is Dying–RIP .doc, .xls, and .ppt (TechCrunchIT, 3/9/2009) […]

  • Dan

    @Pim – IT should listen to what their users want, but should also listen to what their lawyers want. I know that many of the documents that I read at work don’t ever go past the firewall, and bringing one out would be grounds for a lawsuit. And I’m not even in a field like law or medicine with legal confidentiality requirements.

    Online docs, if they want to make inroads into Enterprise contexts, need to learn to play nice with the rest of the infrastructure used by companies of that size. Right now they don’t – which is fine if you’re a small company of 20 guys who are all early-adopters, but not if you’re a company of 5000 employees with well-established and standardized procedures, and a large variance of interest in new technology.

    @Rurik – right on, brother. TC’s model of how an office works seems to be 37Signals, which is nice in theory, but not how any large well-established company works.

  • For all you lovers of science at JMC 352

    […] traveling through the Network; and the page is no longer just hypertext, but hypermedia. Even the static document is giving way to the dynamic textual environment of wikis, blogs and other modes of version-based […]

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