Monday, September 11, 2006

Draft AOIR paper - warning: long post, comments welcome

Why Google wants your desktop
A Paper for the AOIR 7.0 Conference

I'm writing this paper using Google's recently acquired Writely, a web word processor. It hasn't crashed yet which is reassuring since Writely is still a Beta version. I'm encouraged to report bugs to the developers by clicking on the "Report a bug" link conveniently located top right of screen right next to the Writely logo. I can see the program design prioritises collaboration features. Five tabs at the top of the screen invite me to Edit, Collaborate, Publish, Blog and make Revisions in that order. To collaborate, I can email others to join me in editing this document. I can make this paper public at the click of a button. Oops I just did that. I wonder how I can reverse it. I'm not sure I'm quite ready to make this document public.

There's a buzz associated with knowing these words are a mere click away from disseminating to a host of destinations but I also feel removed from my desktop environment, and vaguely uneasy, as if the 'page' I'm working on is not really part of my work space and might disappear at any moment. I've been using MS Word since 1990 and despite its many flaws, it's become the main medium through which I write, work and to some degree, think. MS Word is so ubiquitous and pervasive that I don't think of it as a separate program on my computer. It's so much part of the desktop environment that it seems inseparable from the graphic user interface itself. I find it hard to imagine feeling comfortable replacing it with Google's Writely. On the other hand, perhaps it's just a matter of use. Given enough time and practice, I could adapt to this new way of doing things. If it is well-designed and presents enough benefits, then I could overcome my initial resistance and learning curve. At least, that is Jef Raskin's theory. According to Raskin, originator of the Macintosh, and author of The Human Interface,

"When we set about learning any interface feature that is new to us, we proceed in two phases, the first of which gradually grades into the second. In the first, or learning, phase we are actively aware of the new feature, and seek to understand and master it. If that feature is well–designed, and if we use it repeatedly, we eventually enter the desirable second, or automatic, phase, in which we have formed a habit, and use the feature habitually, without thought or conscious effort.”

This process sounds straight forward, but I'm left with a few questions. Firstly, does moving from Word on the desktop to Word on the web really only involve learning a new set of interface features? Word processors are integrally connected to the entire graphic user interface of my computer. The desktop, the organisation of files in folders and the creation of documents by word processors all work together to form a coherent working environment for the production and ordering of complex information.

In terms of the historical development of the personal computer (PC), the development of word processing and PC's is intimately linked. Word processing was one of the first software programs ever designed for the personal computer. With the release of Macwrite on the Apple Macintosh in 1983, and Microsoft Word on the IBM PC in 1984, software versions of word processing soon replaced the dedicated word processor used before PC's became widely available. One might ask how useful a personal computer would be without a word processor?

Ensuring the successful take up from Word on the desktop to Word on the Web seems to me to be more than a matter of mastering a new set of features and incorporating them into my daily routine. To my mind, there is the much broader question of how does a web service such as Writely integrate and work with my overall working environment, as well as the actual practices involved in using the software. I'd go further to say that this working environment is not limited to the computing environment but extends into the social and built spaces of everyday life. Just as sites like the office, home and school are transformed by the incorporation of new technological objects, the development paths of the desktop computer and the word processor are connected to how they fit or don’t fit into these domains.

Building on Raskin’s theory of “learning” and then “automating”, I suggest that technology transfer is more than a matter of mastering a new set of features and incorporating this into my daily routine. It involves at least two other interlocking processes or paths. A model that incorporates all three processes might look something like this:

1/ functionality and design benefits followed by mastering and habituation
2 /overall coherence into a unifying “space” or environment
3/ integration of this environment into their social and physical contexts

These paths are reinforced over time through spatial practices and can be challenged and re-negotiated at any point.

This brings me to the second question I have when considering a transition from Word for the desktop to a web based Word processor such as Writely. Is it, in fact, Google's aim to get users to replace Microsoft Word on the desktop with a web word processor? I'm not a Google insider, so I can only conjecture on recent developments. Certainly, there are a number of indicators to suggest such a trend. Some industry commentators talk about the "web office" and speculate on who's building it, pointing to a range of contenders such as Thinkfree, JotSpot, AdventNet, Silveroffice and 37 Signals. Google, in particular, attracts attention because it is considered to be large enough to gather all the necessary building blocks together to produce something that would rival the offerings of Microsoft Office (references). These commentators point to the recent acquisition of Writely, the release of Google Spreadsheet and Google Calendar and the now established Gmail as being the potential parts of this greater something, a "WebOffice suite". Other industry commentators point to the recent partnership between Google and Sun Microsystems to bring Sun's StarOffice to Google users as another indicator that Google intends to take on Microsoft Word.

There is also Google Apps for Your Domain, a package of programs (email, instant messaging and calendar) that go together with a hosted web site and domain. Microsoft has released its own parallel service OfficeLive offering a comparable array of services. Both bundle a set of communication and collaboration tools together with web and domain hosting and offer it free (at least while in Beta phase) to businesses and organisations, thereby anchoring the online identity of their customers businesses with the critical communication services required for their daily operation.

It's hard to make sense of all of these developments and harder still to make conclusions about what will happen in the future but I'd like to take a speculative position to see if there is some broader trend that can be recognised.

All these recent developments seem to intersect and condense in and around the idea of "the office" and ultimately where this space is located. The meaning of "office" is far from clear. There is no set of defined features or ideas that constitute "the office". Google seems to specifically steer away from using the term, possibly due to its powerful associations with the Microsoft brand. Microsoft first adopted the term in the early 1990's with the release of a new product that combined a number of applications that had previously been marketed and sold separately such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint. Office bundles, or ‘productivity suites’, as they are referred to by the industry, now also include email and publishing programs.

Although the term “office” is used in a range of ways to describe a number of different technologies, what unites them is the use of the term “office” as a combining metaphor, one that integrates and contains otherwise heterogeneous information and communication functions and activities into a coherent whole. The desktop GUI and office productivity suites together draw on the combining metaphor of “the office” to create a unified work environment. Moreover, this computing work environment “mirrors” or “echoes”, in critical ways, the social and physical context of work and is integrated into it, a folding of one environment into another.

Since the early 1990’s, the association between personal computing in a desktop environment with office productivity suites has been strengthened. In part, this tight coupling is due to the dominance of Microsoft, by far the largest supplier of office productivity suites. Their practical monopoly reinforces the association and also impacts greatly on development, ensuring that the personal desktop environment and Microsoft office both develop in a mutual direction, a classic example of path-dependence. However, in my view, the tight coupling has also to do with the creation of a coherent computing work environment through the use of the office metaphor.

While the desktop environment has proven to be a robust and lasting model, the tight coupling of office suites with the personal desktop computer is potentially destabilized with the emergence of web office suites. Web-based office suites re-situate the space of office activities from the desktop computer environment to a web-based environment, facilitating collaboration and communication in a way that the desktop environment does not. Some commentators argue that the desktop paradigm is challenged by new modes and “flows” of work where collaboration and communication tools become critical; “The Internet, intranets, and email transformed workflows. Globalization and outsourcing dispersed people to satellite offices and partner companies. Collaboration tools became critical” (RedHerring Research).

The idea of the “web office” is not fundamentally new. It references and builds on earlier instantiations and imaginations of it embodied in “the electronic office” or “virtual office”. What I see as significantly different about the current raft of web office suites is the development of web technologies, specifically interactive web applications, to support a total working environment that can perform a similar role to that of personal computers.

In terms of moving users from office suites on the desktop to using them on the web, industry commentators and human interface experts suggest that it is just a matter of getting the right combination of components and the right design. However, in my view, the issue of creating a “unified work environment” and folding this into the social and physical contexts of use is a significant factor that most commentators ignore. Web office suites are bound to personal computers because PC’s make up the environment in which web office suites will be used and are, at present, the main access point for the Web. In some industry circles, this might be described, rather disdainfully, as its legacy. But “the legacy of a new technology” is not just some set of outdated functions or features that one “gets over” in the process of adopting a new set of features or functions. Legacies shape the environment in which a technology emerges and don’t simply disappear with the emergence of something new. Waste, is one of the ways in which modernity deals with its legacy technologies. A technology that is converted to waste can “disappear” and be replaced with a new technology, a process that very much describes our current “upgrade culture”. However, the process of turning something into waste, particular if it involves 400 million Microsoft Office users, is a time-consuming business.

In my view, companies like Google and Microsoft recognise that the future of web office suites are bound to personal computers and that any technology transfer strategy involves more than an upgrade approach. Their approach is to work towards a hybridization of the desktop operating system with a web-based service model. Some indicators of this strategy include the recently released Google desktop, a desktop search application that allows a user to search their own computer as well as the web thereby integrating web and desktop searches. Another indicator of this hybridization is the distribution deal with Dell to pre-install Web and desktop search software on all Dell computers (Zdnet) and the August deal with Real Networks to bundle Google Toolbar and the latest Firefox browser to every download of RealPlayer’s multimedia player.

Microsoft is often criticized for being tardy with moving Office online, critics arguing that Microsoft has been feasting on its existing desktop monopoly (Red Herring). However, another way of viewing Microsoft’s strategy is to examine the logic behind their OfficeLive suite, which is directed towards building on existing installations of Microsoft Office, not replacing them. Microsoft promotes this on their OfficeLive website when they write, “these Web-based applications can be customized to automate your daily tasks — they even integrate with popular and familiar Microsoft products such as Microsoft Office Outlook, Excel, and Word.” (OfficeLive website).

In conclusion, current trends suggest that there is a potential destabilization of the tight coupling that has existed for over 15 years between the desktop environment and office suites. Web office suites can offer, arguably for the first time, a similar level of functionality to desktop versions with the improvements that have come about to interactive web applications. Additionally, web office suites offer many benefits over their desktop equivalents in terms of supporting collaboration and communication. However, while many industry commentators and HCI experts contend that its just a matter of getting the right blend of components and design and replacing the desktop model with web based office suites, my view is that the greater challenge is the drawing together of all the heterogeneous information and communication functions and activities into a coherent system and the integration of this system into existing social and physical contexts. The battle over the office, if we are to use such characterizations, is not a battle being played out between Microsoft representing the side of the offline desktop model and Google representing the side of the online web-based model. Both “sides” are working towards the convergence of the desktop with the web. The battle is over who shapes this hybrid operating system of the future and how it’s folded into the world.


cliff said...

I am Cliff from EditGrid, another online spreadsheet now in the market. After looking at your paper draft, I want to invite you to give us some comment, especially from your point of view, how a web office application position itself while all we know the limitation of web application exist. Please email to cliff(at) editgrid(dot)com for a more in-depth discussion if you accept our invitation. Thanks.

Ms M said...

Hi Cliff, thanks for dropping by and reading my draft paper. I'm not exactly clear on what you are asking me but I'm interested in having a closer look at Editgrid and will email through any comments if I have them.