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For Executives, Entrepreneurs, and other Digerati who need to know about SaaS and Web 2.0.

The Desktop Isn’t Dead, But Why?

Posted by Bob Warfield on October 24, 2007

I liked Ryan Stewart’s title so well, I borrowed for further commentary on the subject of why desktop software isn’t dead.  This is all prompted by comments made by Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft’s Business Applications group, which includes Microsoft Office.

Despite Office 2007 not being on everyone’s list of favorites (I still find I have to get people to download the converter pack for older Office versions because they don’t want to upgrade), the Microsoft desktop is alive and well.  Raikes focuses on the example of Google Gears as evidence that even web companies want a desktop presence.  Ryan Stewart points out that this is just the offline connectivity story and there is a lot more to it.

I agree with Ryan, but think we should not underestimate offline connectivity either.  Tools like Gears and AIR are important if they support the ability to keep working away from an Internet connection.  I’m living in Silicon Valley, and there are frequent times when I can’t get a WiFi hot spot.  I imagine it’s much worse in other places.  If nothing else, you have to consider airplane time (at least until they all get WiFi!) as time when a lot of business professionals are working on their laptops.

As for factors beyond the offline story, Ryan mentions several:

It’s about branding, it’s about things like file type registration, operating-system drag and drop and being able to leverage the local resources for computing power.

This is all good stuff.  It makes me wonder given how large a share Internet Explorer has whether we’ll actually see Microsoft cooperate with giving web apps such capabilities or whether it will have to be done despite Microsoft.  Ray Ozzie has spoken about extending the browser in areas such as cut and paste, so we’ll see.  Despite my view that Microsoft has a rift with the web, this would be a good way for them to offer a show of good faith.  Incidentally, as Microsoft has uptake problems with new releases, a recurring revenue model as offered by web applications is a good business opportunity.  The trick will be to carefully navigate those waters without the usual disruptive effect of converting short term license to long term payments that SaaS has.

Lest you think I do nothing all day but bash Microsoft, I want to bring up what I think is the most important criticism of web apps versus the Microsoft desktop.  To be blunt, the other applications are just not good enough yet.  When I read that Google’s spreadsheet is still adding very basic features like the ability to hide columns, it gives me pause.  That’s pretty scary.  We had that function is the world’s first spreadsheet, Visicalc.  Don’t get me wrong:  MS Office is seriously bloated, and a meaningful web competitor need not rebuild all of that.  However, it feels like we have a little ways to go before critical mass is reached. 

A second issue is stability.  I love Rich Internet Applications and seek them out at every turn.  Yet they are quirky.  I’m composing this blog post in the WordPress blog editor online.  It’s quirky!  Every now and again it hangs up.  I’ve lost a couple of articles, never very much data, but it is concerning.  Clipboard functionality is very funky.  Being able to translate rich text to HTML remains problematic for most of these applications.  Perhaps HTML isn’t quite expressive enough, but I understand even Adobe’s BuzzWord doesn’t get this done.

These are minor growing pains that will ultimately go away.  A lot is reflective of attitude among the web companies.  Don Dodge nails this in his post, “Why Google Will Fail in Enterprise Software”.  Dodge is writing specifically about Tech Support, but it boils down to attitude.  Google doesn’t value Tech Support is Dodge’s message. He admits it doesn’t take rocket science, and I’ll add that Microsoft Tech Support is no picnic, but it is available.  So too with lack of features and bugs in web software.  Many of these companies are run by youthful founders who are more akin to the consumer web space than anything business.  To riff on Dodge’s remarks, these companies don’t value what business users do so much as what’s cool to them.  We have to move away from the idea that it is so amazing we can run a spreadsheet or word processor on the web and over to the focus of making it work so well everyone will want to do it.  The novelty has to pass.

Is it possible?  Yes, absolutely.  Business SaaS follows these dictates and values the right things already.  It comes out ahead of most traditional business software on these measurements.

It’s still very much a horse race for the desktop.  The factors above mean there is time to respond.  Microsoft can continue to own it if they give a little.  They can enhance the browser and have a headstart building software around those enhancements, one of their traditional advantages.  Their culture is already built around more complete feature sets, stability, and security.  Business trusts them, despite what many on the web would say.  An ideal starting point would be to meet these online office apps with Microsoft offerings that are much less full-featured (but still featured enough) than Office 2007.  Offer these at a monthly add-on for Office 2007 purchasers to protect the underlying revenue stream behind Office.

Microsoft’s biggest challenge is to embrace a scary proposition without being afraid of hastening it.  Their second biggest challenge is to overcome internal inertial forces that lead to the incredibly long development cycles Microsoft currently experiences.  Web software turns the crank many times faster.

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6 Responses to “The Desktop Isn’t Dead, But Why?”

  1. Buzzword doesn’t have export to HTML right now, except in the form of the clipboard: you can copy a selection of text and we will put HTML on the system clipboard. We’re looking into adding it as a file format, but it’s not as high as ODF on our list of priorities.

  2. smoothspan said

    David, welcome. I’m glad to hear you’ll be able to export HTML and that the functionality already exists for the clipboard.



  3. troywing said

    Hi Bob,

    there some items in this post which justify posts on their own I think.

    1. Offline Modules in a SaaS B2B environment are a must, particularly if your user base are mobile professionals such as sales reps and managers. We wouldn’t have closed a number of our multinational deals (admittedly a lot of them are pharma companies) without our offline component with full synchronization support. Our customers made it clear there were no plans to provide their sales forces with Broadcard cards for their laptops.

    2. Couldn’t agree with you more, success of Web 2.0 and SaaS hinges on continuous and regular product improvement with short release cycles. The ironic thing is that this can be achieved in a Desktop application in many cases more easily than a HTML + AJAX + Flash/Silverlight deployment. A Desktop application will provide the rich user experience which sometimes can be tricky to code in Browser solution. I also think this doesn’t take away from Web 2.0 but adds to it. If you have a seamless desktop client deployment and versioning model over HTTP and secured Web Service access to your hosted data then that should still be considered a SaaS deployment.

    Unfortunately, the mindset often is if you are building a Desktop app then you can’t use an Agile approach, which I think is flawed.

    Troy Wing

  4. smoothspan said

    Troy, sadly, Agile is a mindset that requires quite a cultural rework to adopt. There are a lot of factors that can make it extremely difficult. For example, if your culture is blame oriented and very risk averse, Agile won’t make it. It’s too easy to argue somebody did something without exercising due care. Whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter. Using too much process is sometimes an excuse for covering one’s posterior.

    I don’t know what Microsoft’s problem is on their product cycles being so long, but I know the culture isn’t at all Agile oriented based on numerous friends who work there. One issue is that they’re very Product Management driven. PM’s want to create stone tablets and get the engineers to build that. Agile works best if Engineers and PM’s collaborate with customers on very short cycles.

    Even at Borland, where I had great success with Agile programming, not every product group would adopt it. Interestingly, the database group there was the least Agile. I have observed Enterprise Software is pretty afraid of being Agile in many cases too. The tools guys were very Agile, and my own business apps group was Agile.

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