Office in the Cloud

I'm not ready to drink the Kool-Aid just yet, but there's this enormous, round-pitcher-shaped guy banging on my office door. At first I thought he was a relative, given his girth, but it turns out he's the proverbial harbinger of things to come.

I'm referring, albeit, incredibly obliquely, to Web 2.0, the only thing anybody in IT seems to be talking about these days (except maybe for the pending Windows Vista release). Ajax; mashups; wikis; the Programmable Web; ad hoc, knowledge-worker-built biz apps; they're even talking about this stuff on NPR!

Consider last week's small but very well executed Office 2.0 Conference. The two-day event, which was held at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco, drew about 450 attendees and featured 105 speakers. I wasn't surprised to see Google, WebEx, and iNetOffice listed among the 56 corporate sponsors, but IBM, SAP, BEA Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer, and the law firm of Fenwick and West? Clearly, the 2.0 thing has permeated the corporate IT zeitgeist.

The soul of this event was Ismael Ghalimi, conference host with the most and relentless pre-conference emailer. (I got about 50.) Ghalimi is the CEO and co-founder of Intalio, a Redwood City, CA-based open-source BPMS vendor. In his post-conference blog posting, Ghalimi offered his definition of Office 2.0. It is, he wrote, an ''Office productivity environment enabled by online services used through a Web browser. By storing data online and relying on applications provided as Web services, it fosters collaboration and extends mobility, while promoting a user-centric model that fuels innovation and increases productivity.'' Ghalimi has also posted some attendee comments on the Web; they're worth checking out.

One of the big announcements at the show came from conference sponsor iNetOffice. The Kirkland, WA-based developer of Internet-based document solutions disclosed that it is joining forces with ShareMethods, a South Orange, NJ-based maker of an on-demand sales-and-marketing-document management product. The two companies are collaborating to bring online office apps to market and to develop Ajax mashup recommendations. The goal of the partnership, the companies said, is to provide ''the next wave of software services'' to improve the efficiency and flexibility of working with documents online in multiple, on-demand applications.

iNetOffice is no newcomer to the world of browser-based apps. The company has been offering its iNetWord online document and Web-page editor for several years.

The conference exhibitor gallery featured a range of vendors demoing their Web-based wares on big iMac 24-inch monitors. Most were small startups, but companies like SAP and BEA were there, too. And a number of vendors showed off their products during an event called the Demo Blitz. Among my favs:

BEA's trio of knowledge-worker tools, code named ''Project Graffiti,'' ''Project Builder,'' and ''Project Runner.'' I got a private demo of these tools, which won't be available until sometime next year. They're based largely on tech acquired with BEA’s recent purchase of portal provider Plumtree Software and business process management (BPM) vendor Fuego. Their purpose: to bridge the gap between the ad hoc, spontaneous collaboration in which most knowledge workers regularly engage and the technologies that support those activities.

'The knowledge-worker gaps are one of the big opportunities for Enterprise 2.0,' Ajay Gandhi, director of product marketing in BEA's business interaction division, told me. ''Web 2.0 has shown that today's mass market can build mashups, share photos, and create taxonomies. So people are now comfortable with those concepts, with the idea that the users themselves are going to build their own apps. The question now is, how do you bring the benefits of these concepts into the enterprise with scalability, governance accountability, and all those other things that the enterprise still needs?''

Menlo Park, CA-based Coghead has a similar plan to imbue non-coders with coder-like powers. The company is providing a simple, intuitive, drag-and-drop tool designed for tech-savvy business people who need to create, manage, and deliver their own Web-based apps. It's a kind of do-it-yourself service aimed at small and medium sized businesses and workgroups in a larger organization. I loved this line from the Coghead press release: ''Most companies are facing software rigor mortis, shackled by inflexible and monolithic packaged applications.'' (Now that's just good writing.)

I spoke with Paul McNamara, Coghead's CEO, on the exhibit floor. 'We're enabling the people closest to the business to create their own Web-based services,' McNamara said. 'It's about eliminating the gap between the people who create applications and the people use them.'

I also liked the SmartSheet online collaboration software. Another Kirkland, Washington-based company, SmartSheet demoed its namesake on-demand Web app, which is a project manager built around a hosted spreadsheet and email. It allows users to combine sub-projects into bigger projects; to send one-time or recurring update requests both within and outside the organization, and manages outstanding requests; and to share up-to-date status reports with colleagues in real time.

It may sound boring, but the FreshBooks  online invoicing and time-tracking service is going to turn the heads of SMBs. The Toronto, Ontario-based startup's Web app allows users to create, send, and manage invoices; to track time for billing; to send invoices by email or snail mail; to accept payment with PayPal, Authorize.Net, and other services; and to send out invoices and late payment notices automatically.

Vyew's free Web conferencing software also caught my eye. The Berkeley, CA-based company makes a free, 100 percent browser-based collaboration app designed to allow users to share views of Word docs, PowerPoint pages, and Excel spreadsheets; JPEGs and PDFs; and whiteboards—in real time.

Other demos and products worth noting:

  • TechDirt's Insight Community, an ad-hoc analyst network where enterprises can connect with and solicit opinions from blogger experts.
  • Wufoo's easy online forms.
  • Trovix's recruiting and hiring tool.
  • Caspio's Bridge site-building tool for the enterprise and small business
  • Synthasite's collaborative Web dev platform
  • SiteKreator's site-building tool.
  • Preezo's online presentation tool.
  • Koral's content collaboration system.
  • Etelos's online application ''store,'' where businesses can find online applications. (Etelos lists them, but doesn't host them.)
  • System One's business wiki platform.

Google proved to be an inadvertent conference buzz kill when the Mountain View, CA-based Searchosaurus announced that it would be offering Google Docs and Spreadsheets, a word processing and spreadsheet bundle, free over the Net. That announcement contributed at least a little to the feeling among some industry watchers that even this market will belong to the bigger players.

This was the first Office 2.0 event, but I suspect it will not be the last. Today, there are more than 100 Office 2.0 services hosted on the Internet.

BTW: I wanted to give a shoutout to the folks at LiveKiosk, who provided the refurbished IBM ThinkPads in the Office 2.0 Conference press room. The machines were running a streamlined version of Linux with a locked-down version of the Firefox Web browser as the only UI. That combo was originally developed by the company for hurricane and other relief shelters. It's designed to turn older, used computers into freely-available, no-maintenance public Web stations that provide quick and easy Internet access to relief workers and refugees. The software runs from a CD-ROM, and the ThinkPads in the press room had no hard drives or batteries.


About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].