When Microsoft first began to dabble in online document sharing it took a different approach from existing online office suites offered by the likes of Google and Zoho. Where its competitors allowed editing of documents from within the web browser, Microsoft decided that the ‘cloud’ should become an element of its existing Office productivity suite. Accordingly while documents created in Word 2007 could be viewed online using a web browser, they could only be edited using Word itself. In October 2008 this changed with the announcement that the next version of Office, ‘Office 14’ will include online document editing using a web browser.
Apple seems to be ignoring this development. All you will be able to do using the new online version of its iWork 09 office suite, announced yesterday, will be to make notes on existing documents. Full collaborative document editing will require a copy of iWork 09 and an iWork.com account. For the time being iWork.com is in free public beta, but it will eventually be a pay-for service. What made this announcement stand out in an otherwise mundane keynote at the Macworld conference, is that it indicates Apple’s direction for the next few years.
For the record, I think iWork is in many ways a fine suite of software. The wordprocessor/DTP element, Pages, is sleek and easy to use, while Keynote makes presentations a lot easier to put together than any other similar package I’ve used. Keynote certainly seems to suit more discursive presentations than business-leaning presentation software such as Powerpoint. I also prefer Numbers over more traditional spreadsheets, though I don’t use spreadsheets all that often. What is happening with iWork 09 however is indicative of the two dominant approaches in the battle to control the Web.
On the one hand are Google, which bought up Writely and turned its online wordprocessor into Google Docs, and Zoho, which provides a remarkably diverse set of online productivity applications. These companies, among others, see a cross-platform future in which the web browser is the place where things get done. The addition of Gears, which allows offline editing of web-based content, and the development of ‘Web App’ mini browsers such as Fluid, degrade the barrier between desktop and web. Google’s Chrome web browser also allows users to create a desktop ‘application’ out of any website. Google hopes to encourage them to do so with its own online office suite.
On the other hand are Apple and Microsoft, both of which depend on the success of their own particular platform. Despite its upcoming move to the browser some components in Microsoft’s Office Live service still require Internet Explorer 6 or 7 (and specifically Active X), which don’t run anywhere but on Windows. Apple’s MobileMe services (online calendaring, email etc.) work in several different browsers, but only on the Mac or on Windows. Forget using Firefox to check your MobileMe calendar on your shiny new Linux Netbook in other words. Edit: Actually, while MobileMe didn’t work in Linux at first, and I couldn’t get it to work yesterday before I wrote this, it is now working for me in Firefox on Linux. If you’re having trouble, clear out the caches and cookies and whatnot. You still have to click through an ‘unsupported browser’ message though, and it’s possible things are not working as they should (but thanks to Terry in the comments for prompting me to try again).
Clearly there are good reasons for Microsoft and Apple to tie their online services to their own products. Microsoft depends heavily on income from Office, while Apple has to sell Macs and keep people using them. But I can’t help thinking that while the ‘cloud’ services they offer might well turn out to benefit other areas of their business for the time being, this isn’t the best way to make customers hang around in the long term. For instance I might well sign up and pay for Apple’s iWork on the web if it is competitive with Google Docs, but not if I have to buy iWork 09 as well. The same goes for MS Office and its ‘Live’ counterpart if it won’t work properly anywhere but Windows.
People want to be free to work when and where they like and their computing environment is increasingly a cross-platform one. My guess is that in the long term Apple will have to follow Microsoft and break the link between its desktop office suite and the iWork.com services. These attempts to lock customers in to buying a particular product in order to use a service available elsewhere for free or at low cost are very similar to the music industry’s insistence on downloaded music being crippled with DRM. And we know how well that worked out, don’t we?