Streaming Office vs True Web Apps

Randall Kennedy of ZDNet makes a bold prediction that streaming office will kill cloud based alternatives like Google Apps and Zoho. CenterNetworks has a somewhat different take. Let me first explain what is meant by streaming office: the server splits the code of an existing desktop application like MS Office into chunks, streams the code to the client as needed,  which the client executes in a virtual machine layer. I would call it an “appletized application” (though there is no Java involved in this).

So is that model going to finish off web application suites like Zoho? Call me hopelessly biased or hopelessly delusional but I vehemently disagree (surprise!).  Let me list some reasons.

1. One-time loading isn’t 

Proponents of such systems always say “it is only a one time download”. Yes, it is a one time download, but for each PC you use, and often each browser you use as well.  Combine that with browser version upgrades, VM upgrades & application upgrades, and you are going to be loading the application code much more often than is comfortable. Such upgrades have a way of happening just when you want to get in/out quick to get something done. Experience with Java applets and Java webstart has shown that this is true.

With HTML/JS apps, we actually assume that code will be downloaded practically every time, and architect it to work fast in that case. We measure code in kilobytes.

2. Light footprint of web apps doesn’t preclude rich functionality 

Kennedy makes the point that only streaming office could deliver full office functionality:

Full Office Functionality – MAV encapsulates the entire sequenced application. This isn’t some “web-based” Office knock-off. It’s the real deal: Microsoft Office in all it’s sophisticated, class-leading, standard setting (flaunting?), enterprise desktop-dominating glory.

Mike Gunderloy of WebWorkerDaily observed how rapidly online suites are evolving. I have argued that online application suites are well on their way to matching and exceeding the functionality of desktop applications. Our recent support for VB macros in Zoho Sheet is an example of the rapidly evolving functionality. By the way, we run the macro securely in the server, the best place to execute such code. Due to intelligent partitioning of the application, online suites are going to retain their ease of use and lightness advantages, while advancing in terms of features.

3.  Streaming Office assumes a Fat Client PC

I am typing this post in a fairly low-end machine, which can run Firefox well, but cannot do much else (I call it a Firebox). In fact, I often use fairly old PCs with Firefox to torture-test Zoho and loudly complain to our developers to fix this or that. My personal best on that score is a Windows 98 PC (amazingly it runs Firefox well!) we have lying around here, and yes Zoho suite runs acceptably on that machine. I have cheap friends who still have Windows 2000 PCs at home (which again runs Firefox well!) and use it as their browsing machine. Good luck running streaming office on any of these machines. This is not a trivial issue. The web computing model has given a new lease on life for old machines, and people aren’t going to upgrade their hardware just to run streaming office. The reception for Windows Vista, which essentially requires the purchase of a new PC, shows that this problem is real.

Let me make a bold prediction of my own: streaming office will fail. Note that I am not talking about MS office per se here – I am suggesting that the streaming incarnation of it will fail. Web suites, including Zoho, will succeed in carving out serious market share. Within that space, our own goal is sustainable, profitable market share, that keeps us vibrant and innovative. With our breadth and depth of applications, we are well on our way.

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