About a year ago, I was interviewed by a well-spoken Asian journalist, who impressed me by the speed with which he was typing into his phone. No joke, he had a phone with a tiny keypad, and given how uncertain his PC internet environment was in India, he relied on connectivity via his GSM phone. And he did quite well at it – to the point that he ribbed his peers for lingering in the PC past. It’s amazing how people adapt to constraints, as well as opportunity.
Now, phones aren’t wonderful input devices – at least for 2000 word articles. They’re not bad for text messages (or even a paragraph now and then), but there’s nothing like a full sized keyboard and monitor to create documents. So I’d like to tell you about my computing environment, and give you an opportunity to think about the future of office productivity.
I’m sorry to admit my personal computer usage is a tad different than most folks. I don’t have just one computer, I have about 5. Why? I like to keep up with where the industry’s headed. I own a couple Macintoshes (everyone should), a SunRay, an Ultra 20 (dual booting Solaris/Debian), and a tiny travel laptop (Solaris/Windows), and of course, I’m typing this on a fancy (and hot) Ferrari Acer Solaris laptop.
Although that probably sounds like an embarassment of riches, it actually creates a few problems. I solved the cross platform office productivity problem a while back, running StarOffice/OpenOffice.org (granted, NeoOffice/J on my Mac), Firefox, Java and Thunderbird across all the platforms. I’m quite happy and productive. Interacting with PC users is no problem at all.
But I do run into problems, given my refusal to run a server in my home. Yes, I refuse to run a server. I know it’s heresy for someone in my position (especially someone with 5+ desktops), but my view is regular users shouldn’t run servers in their homes. Nor should everyday citizens run power generators, except when they live off grid. And given that I live on a grid, I let Yahoo! and Google and eBay and Sun and OpenTable run servers on my behalf. They do it far, far better than I (granted, that isn’t a high bar).
But here’s an interesting user problem, which should put what Sun announced today into context, and give you some insight into where we see the future of office productivity.
First, a member of my family gets a Microsoft Word document from her sister. This family member doesn’t own MS Word, so she sends the document to me to revise on her behalf, and return via email.
I receive the document, convert from Microsoft’s .doc to StarOffice’s ODF format, edit, and save. To my local drive. On my fancy Ferrari laptop. Ooops. Why ooops?
Because then I get on a plane, and take a 6 hour flight to go visit customers, without my Ferrari laptop (I don’t travel with it – I travel with the tiny one). When I land, my family member calls to tell me she needs the document sent immediately. Uh oh.
Do I ask my neighbor to give her the emergency key? Do I walk her through navigating boot partitions? No no no. What do I really want? Hold that thought.
The remarkable thing about office productivity is the breadth of functionality covered by products like OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office. Sadly, none of us uses more than 10% of the feature set – and yet none of us uses the same 10%. That certainly complicates migrating users. But there are a couple exceptions to the rule.
There are two features every Office user relies upon – neither of which have experienced much by way of innovation over the past decade, and both of which lend themselves well to solving the problem I outline above – a derivative of which has been experienced by every journalist on the planet. As I wrote a week or so ago, building a user base isn’t about rewriting functionality that works well today, it’s about identifying efficiencies and differentiation, and innovating to create value for consumers.
The two features every single user needs are: Save, and Open. So wouldn’t it be interesting if rather than exploring your local file system on your local PC, the Save and Open panels simply looked to a network account on Sun’s Grid? Shareable like any of the mainstream photo services are today? Or how about saving to that 2.5Gb allowance Google gave you in your GMail account? And wouldn’t it be great if you could save to ODF, or translate to Microsoft Word, or generate a podcast or mp3 file – on the fly? From within any app?
That would certainly put into question why you’d want to shell out $500 for Microsoft’s Office 12 when OpenOffice.org was free, cross platform, more innovative, and just more for your money. And enabled by the biggest names on the internet.
And the best part is Sun’s Grid and Star or OpenOffice don’t have to be rewritten – they just need to learn some very simple new tricks. And as one of the internet’s brightest minds said last year around this time, simplicity is an awfully powerful weapon.