One of the audio podcasts I listen to is This Week In Google, which despite the name actually covers everything cloud-related, not just Google. It is a very interesting podcast, with Gina Trapani, Jeff Jarvis, and Leo Laporte. In this particular episode, Leo asked the others what they used for most of their writing. In each case, it was some kind of online application, not a conventional word processor like Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, or OpenOffice.org Writer. Jeff Jarvis did allow that he had to use Microsoft word when he wrote the book, but he did phrase it as he “had to use it.” It really did sound as if he would have preferred to use something else. Gina Trapani is writing a book right now, on Google Wave, and is doing it all in a wiki that is open to others.
I think that for some things there is no real replacement for the power of a desktop program. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had a contract once at a large legal practice, and I can assure you that lawyers will not be using Google Docs any time soon to write their legal papers. And there are very real questions about security if your documents are online. Plus, you have to consider that having things online can present problems if anything happens to your Internet access or the remote servers. You would be cut off from access to your files.
A lot of pundits have taken these objections as evidence that online software will “never” replace desktop programs. I am not sure. I think there are other facts that these pundits overlook. The first is that online software will continue to be developed. The feature list of desktop software is so rich now that there really isn’t a lot left for them to do. The major new feature of Office 2007, for example, was the Ribbon, and that has received more criticism than praise as far as I can tell. The other major change is in file formats, which is not something most users care about at all. So I think online software can catch up by virtue of the fact that desktop software is pretty much at a dead end.
The second point that we need to consider is how technology will change in the next few years. Most folks have heard about Moore’s Law, which is about how processors will double in capability every 18 months or so. In fact, this type of exponential growth is not restricted to just processors. All technology is growing exponentially. Each new generation of wireless is approximately 10 times faster than the previous generation. Broadband speeds are growing, and so on. Technical barriers to “cloud” software that we see today we possibly won’t see in 2-3 years as the technology improves.
The final point to consider is that these changes often happen rather quickly when a tipping point is reached. There is a technical term, hysteresis, which we could use here. What this means is that a smooth change in the technical and economic parameters can appear to have no effect for a period of time, and then in a fairly short time frame everything changes. I suspect the change from desktop office software to online “cloud” equivalents will probably display this type of behavior. Clearly the online software has an economic advantage, since most of it is free. And online does have advantages in a world where increasingly people want to have access to all of their data all of the time, no matter where they are. We may well see a sudden shift when everything lines up to make the online applications preferable.
One last point is that this will not mean that desktop office software disappears, only that it will not be the dominant way documents, spreadsheets, and presentations are created.