Dawn of the Web office

Productivity applications are being remade in the Web's image

Once upon a time, before e-mail, three major applications came to define the office suite: spreadsheet, word processor, and database. We created and edited documents using these programs, and we traded them back and forth using floppies and the LAN. The legacy of the personal computer era is that, to this day, the context in which these exchanges occur remains fundamentally personal. I create the document, I give it to you to make changes, and you give it back to me.

The defining characteristic of the network era now upon us is that these documents live in the network. A document that I create there may still be personal, in the sense that only I can read it and write it, but it is intrinsically shareable in a variety of group contexts: a pair of collaborators, a department of 20, a company of 20,000, the world. We can still pass around copies of our documents, using e-mail attachments or file upload/download, but we can also pass around URLs to any of these groups. When a worksheet or a memo or a data-driven chart lives in the network and has a URL, the activation threshold for collaboration is low. It’s easy to search, aggregate, correlate, reorganize, control access, track changes, synchronize, and enlarge the circle of discussion.

2006 brought early glimpses of what the traditional office suite can become when its center of gravity moves to the network. With Google Docs and Spreadsheets, memos and worksheets sit at the center of a nexus of collaboration. When you invite someone to see or edit a spreadsheet, the e-mail invitation says: “It’s not an attachment -- it’s stored online. To open this document, click the link.” The context assembled around the document includes the roster of viewers and co-editors, a live chat session, and a revision history that allows users to recover prior versions.

Many members of the team that created Google Docs and Spreadsheets were probably in diapers, or not yet born, when Dan Bricklin’s first ad for VisiCalc appeared in the May 1979 issue of BYTE. In 2006, Bricklin returned with wikiCalc, a Web-based spreadsheet that will be distributed and co-developed (under an open source license) by Socialtext.

Last year in this space, we noted the emergence of the enterprise wiki. It was a seemingly unlikely turn of events, given the unvarnished user experience afforded by wikis, but it spoke to a deep need for lightweight Web-centric collaboration. And efforts to enrich the wiki interface were already underway. JotSpot, now acquired by Google, offered one approach to adding structure to wikispace. Now Bricklin’s wikiCalc provides another.

With word processors and spreadsheets migrating into the network, databases were bound to follow. 2006’s most compelling entry in this category was Smallthought Systems’ Dabble DB, a hosted application that absorbs data from local sources or the Web, reshapes it with simple sorting, filtering, and grouping, and produces views that can be edited with collaborators or shared with the world.

These are early days for the Web office, and the upstarts don’t do nearly as much as the incumbents. But they do those things in a shared context that people will increasingly expect to be the natural and pervasive way to work.