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

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.