Rhodri Marsden: Is the office of the future an online-only affair?
Wednesday 16 June 2010
Technology isn't always exciting, he said, knowing that most people are already aware of this, and I may as well be telling them that England don't always beat mediocre opposition at football.
But while we always try to feature eye-opening stuff in this column, it's important to celebrate the mundane occasionally. Because for every person gasping in awe at a smartphone app displaying an annotated map of the night sky that scrolls smoothly as they sweep it about their head, there's someone else wearily importing a JPEG of a woman wearing a low-cut top into a Powerpoint document to distract colleagues from some particularly dispiriting Q2 sales figures.
And it's the dreary world of presentations, spreadsheets and word processing that's currently being given a makeover by Microsoft and Google to make it seem more fun and appealing – which I appreciate is a bit like putting Francis Maude in a bunnygirl outfit, but stick with it. Microsoft's Office 2010 suite, just launched worldwide, comes with the ability to "access, edit and share documents from virtually anywhere" via Office Web Apps; you can now create and tinker with documents using a web browser on computers other than your own, and save them to a remote "Sky Drive" – which sounds like a futuristic transportation device but is actually some disk space on a server within a soulless building somewhere or other. Google Docs has allowed you to do this kind of thing for a while, but Google is also upping the ante with an all-new service, offering full, real-time collaboration (allowing you, for example, to chat with a co-worker as together you sneakily massage projected revenue forecasts). Microsoft, unwilling to be socially outflanked, has teamed up with Facebook to offer free online document creation and editing at Docs.com – so, if you're a Facebook member, you can experience all the dizzy delirium of word processing right now, but using Internet Explorer or Firefox rather than Word or OpenOffice.
There are a few critical differences between the two approaches. Microsoft – the market leader in office software, with more than a billion users worldwide – sees the idea of office apps online as an extension of the software on your computer: a complement, not a substitute. Google, meanwhile, only really cares about "the cloud"; indeed, the new Google Docs withdraws support for offline working altogether ("Frankly, very few people were using it," says a spokesman.) The notion of having our files and applications all stored remotely is an odd one; we're told that the new way is fantastic, but the method we're used to works just fine. (People who've received a pasta machine as a gift will know what I'm talking about.) Unstable wireless internet connections can cause problems with saving documents; there's the issue of whether you can trust a remote server to take care of your files (they're probably safer than on your own computer, but mentally it's a bit of a leap); and of course the internet's not omnipresent: you'll find that Office Web Apps, Google Docs, and indeed Zoho or Thinkfree (two other competitors) are all noticeably inaccessible in aeroplanes, basements or remote rural areas.
Which of the two big cloud services is better? Well, Microsoft's is prettier, but Google's is free. Your documents are more likely to keep their formatting with Microsoft, but Google's runs on more computers and browsers – and pips Microsoft in terms of sharing and collaboration. Both stress the way they enable you to get things done "from anywhere". But, frankly, most of us only need to get things done from, well, somewhere.
I was at a party on Saturday night during the first England game of the World Cup campaign, when a group of drunken blokes arrived wearing red and white wigs, slurring the words "Fabio Capello" at great volume, and generally making life awkward. I don't think it's stretching the bounds of credibility to say that there are parallels with social media. Twitter, despite various rebalancing acts behind the scenes, has been buckling under the strain of people posting about the World Cup, and those only mildly interested in football have become irritated at the flood of inexpert football commentary. the site is particularly overburdened whenever a goal is scored, as several million people tweet the word "Goal!" at each other. Perhaps Twitter's best chance of coping is if the matches remain relatively free of incident; see last Friday's France v Uruguay clash for an example, although you'll have trouble finding highlights online, because there weren't any.
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