Office Web Apps: is Microsoft missing its big opportunity?

I have been found the technical preview of Microsoft’s Office Web Apps mostly disappointing. One problem is bugs. These are to be expected in a technical preview, but I have had more problems than I would expect in a widely distributed technical preview. PowerPoint has been particularly problematic. When I try to edit a PowerPoint document I now almost always get “PowerPoint Web App encountered an error. Please try again.” Once I get this error I am stuck with it for the rest of the session. On the Mac I am unable to open documents in Office 2008; I get a message that says “To open this presentation, your computer must be running a version of Microsoft PowerPoint and a browser that supports opening files directly from the Office Web Apps.” On Linux the edit features of the Web Apps seem to be disabled completely. When collaborating in Excel, you cannot see what the other person is editing, which can result in your work being overwritten. Trying to load an Excel sheet that included VBA macros gave the blunt message: “Excel Web App was unable to load the workbook that you requested”.

No doubt these things will be fixed, or at least the messages improved, but it raises doubts about whether the Web Apps will be ready in time.

The performance of the web apps overall is mixed: load times can be slow, but once loaded it is not so bad – scrolling through a Word document in the Silverlight viewer is fine. Performance seems to vary, which may suggest server load issues, and/or the effects of caching as a session continues. Anyway, it was weak enough that when I tried an experiment with a larger spreadsheet I did so with no great expectations.

Here’s what I did. I ran a script that reads every filename and writes it to a file, and ran it against a drive containing many files. I imported this to Excel (which coped without blinking) and saved it both as an .xlsx and a .xls with a little over 30,000 rows. I tried importing it to Google Apps, which says it accepts spreadsheets up to 1MB (my sheet was 883K). Google wasn’t having it, and gave me an error – maybe because an .xlsx is really zipped, and uncompressed the .xls was nearly 3MB. I cut it down to 100,000 rows, whereupon Google accepted it OK. Scrolling from top to bottom took around 15 seconds, or nearer 5 seconds in Chrome: impressive.

Next I tried Office Web Apps. To my surprise, it accepted the large sheet without protest; even the upload was quick. Better still, it was able to scroll from top to bottom in less than 10 seconds, faster once loaded.

I was impressed, though something is not quite right. I put a little calculation towards the bottom of the sheet and for some reason I can’t figure out, it isn’t working.

Still, it seems that Excel Web App is ready for workbooks larger than Google will accept. It’s a significant issue, since there are plenty of large spreadsheets in the world; and I can’t see any inherent reason why web applications should not be able to deal with them. Deep Zoom does a great job of dealing with large bitmaps, so why not spreadsheets as well, on the same principle that you only need to see a small portion at any one time?

The Office Web Apps build on Excel Services along with equivalent services that are being developed for the other Office applications, so Microsoft is in fact building a server-side Office. It is a huge opportunity given the dominance of Microsoft Office in business, with the potential to jump-start Microsoft’s efforts to establish itself alongside the likes of Google and as a provider of online applications. The big question is to what extent it is willing to surface the features of server-side Office so that users can take full advantage.

The answer currently seems to be, “not much.” The editing features are extremely limited. Here’s what product manager Chris Adams told me when I asked him to describe the limitations:

Our goal is not to replicate the desktop software on the web. The web is a few years away from providing the same kind of rich, powerful experience that we have on the desktop. One of our goals is that cross-browser, cross-platform support. Without wanting to use extra add-ins to add functionality, it does limit us in some ways.

We’ve been trying to look at the key things people might want to do when they access a web app. Smart Art is an example. Smart Art was introduced in Office 2007 on the desktop. With the web app we’ll look to enable people to edit Smart Art, update some elements in it, but we won’t allow you to create new smart art.

We’re trying to replicate the right features and functionality for what we think users will want to do with the web version. This is the first time that a lot of people will get to use it, so the feedback starts now. What people tell us now will inform what we eventually end up with as a feature set.

My feedback here is that the web apps should be as full-featured as possible, so that you can do all your work without having to click that Edit in Office button – which is never going to work anyway in some scenarios, such as on Linux.

Despite denials, I am sure that Microsoft is deliberately limiting the editing options in the web apps so as to ensure that we still need desktop Office. I cannot make sense of what is on offer in Excel Web App, for example, in any other way.

It seems to me that Microsoft is choosing between two paths here.

  • On one path it makes the Web Apps as good as possible, and risks losing sales of Office licences as well as making non-Windows operating systems more viable on the desktop.
  • On the other path, it limits the capabilities of the Web Apps, and risks losing customers in their entirety as they realise that Microsoft is not serious about letting them work through a web-based system.

Not easy, but I’d suggest that the first option above is less dangerous for Microsoft than the second.

Microsoft’s Office Web Apps enter technical preview

I’ve been writing recently about Desktop Applications versus Web Applications, so as you would expect I have a keen interest in Microsoft’s Office Web Applications, which enter technical preview today.

First, a few facts:

  • The Office Web Apps are Excel, Word, PowerPoint and OneNote
  • You will be able to view, create and edit documents in IE, Firefox and Safari, running on Windows, Mac or Linux.
  • The current technical preview is read-only for Word, and OneNote is not yet supported. Excel and PowerPoint support create and edit.
  • There are three ways to use Office Web Apps. Consumers are expected to use the free (ad-supported) Windows Live offering, where documents are stored on SkyDrive. Businesses can choose between Microsoft Online, which is a subscription offering, or on-premise hosting using SharePoint 2010. The free SharePoint services will be sufficient. You need a volume license for Office.
  • The Office Web Apps are essentially HTML apps. Silverlight is not required, but gives enhanced viewing with zoom and pan where available.
  • There is no offline functionality as such, unlike Google Apps. Of course you can save a document locally.
  • Office 2010 will let you load and save directly from SkyDrive, just as you can today with Office and SharePoint.
  • Office Web Apps will let you view old-style Office 2003 formats (.doc, .xls etc), but if you edit and save, they are saved in 2007 format (.docx, .xlsx etc).
  • You will be able to embed PowerPoint documents into other web sites, just like SlideShare, but not Word or Excel.
  • The paid-for variants add features including auditing, document history, backup and restore – in essence, SharePoint features.
  • Office Web Apps will be released at the same time as Office 2010. Full beta before the end of 2009, release before the end of June 2010.

I spoke to product manager Chris Adams. Some cynics, I said, are suspicious that Microsoft might deliberately hobble the web apps in order to preserve the advantage of the desktop apps. His response:

By hobbling them, we wouldn’t be enabling that scenario of that anywhere working, anywhere flexibility, by making it a bad experience. We’re focused on making the right functionality that we believe our customers want available through the web applications. There’s sometimes the view that Microsoft is making web apps available as a competitive response and we’re going to be difficult round about licensing because we need to maintain the Office “cash cow” business. We see web apps not only supporting better productivity experiences for our existing customers, but it also opens up the Office experience and Office brand for millions of new users worldwide.

I also asked about the developer angle and whether there will be an API for Office Web Apps. The answer is that SharePoint is the API, enhanced in SharePoint 2010 with Word Services, Visio Services and Access Services to complement the existing Excel Services. The further implication is that the API for Windows Live Office Web Apps will be weak. There are engineering differences between the Windows Live apps and SharePoint; Windows Live is not just hosted SharePoint. This also explains why the Technical Preview is less far advanced than you might expect; according to Adams, it is more advanced on SharePoint at the moment. Adams added that:

For the first release we’re focused on a great end-user experience, the document fidelity and providing as rich an experience as we possibly can. There is a developer story round about Office running on a server, it’s just not necessarily the web apps, it’s provided for SharePoint services.

The full details will be given at the SharePoint conference in October 2009.

Software development trends in emerging markets

I’ve just attended a webinar given by Evans Data on software development trends in emerging markets such as India, China and Brazil. Not many surprises, but still interesting. Here’s a quick summary:

  • The emerging market developers are much younger – a median age of 29 versus 41 in the rest of the world (ROW).
  • The developer population is growing faster in emerging markets – 25% per annum versus 9%.
  • Educational attainment is similar in emerging markets vs ROW – developers tend to be highly educated.
  • Developing for cloud computing and SOA is somewhat stronger in emerging markets than ROW

There are mixed signals when it comes to use of Microsoft technologies. On the one hand, we were told that Microsoft is strong, and a sign of that is that more emerging market developers are signed up to a paid developer program (presumably MSDN) than in the ROW. On the other hand, there’s more open source adoption in emerging markets: 74% vs 65% ROW.

Programming language trends are hard to nail, because emerging market developers tend to have multi-language skills. 60% of emerging market developers use Java, for example, vs 45% in ROW; but 48% use C#, vs 38% in ROW. The emerging market developers are ahead in every category here, despite (or because of) their younger age.

When it comes to host operating systems, Windows XP predominates in both groups. There’s less Mac in emerging markets: the number 5 OS is Windows 7, whereas it is OS X in ROW. The others are Vista, Linux, and Windows 2003.

What I’m not sure about (but would like to know) is how many of the developers surveyed in emerging markets were working for their own market, and how many for international customers.

My own observation is that aside from the remarkable age difference, the two groups are more similar than I would have guessed.

London Stock Exchange migrating from .NET to Oracle/UNIX platform

The London Stock Exchange has agreed to acquire MillenniumIT, and will be replacing its TradElect and Infolect systems with the MillenniumIT trading system. TradElect is based on Windows Server and .NET,  and was created by Microsoft and Accenture. Microsoft used to use the LSE’s system as a showcase for .NET scalability, but while it proved that .NET can work for large systems, the LSE suffered an outage in September 2008 that was rumoured to be the fault of TradElect.

I don’t know much about MillenniumIT but note that the company is a partner with Sun and Oracle and that the MillenniumIT Exchange brochure [pdf] states:

Operating System: UNIX or Linux

Database: Oracle

As Brian Bryson of IBM/Rational observes, it is short-sighted to lay the blame on the platform. Nevertheless, considering the high profile of this system and Microsoft’s active involvement it is at least an embarrassment.

The mitigation for Microsoft is that .NET has less to prove these days. Even if running a system as large and performance-critical as the London Stock Exchange was a step too far, particularly for Server 2003 and (apparently) SQL Server 2000, that doesn’t rule out Microsoft’s technology for more usual workloads; and there are improvements in Server 2008 and SQL Server 2008.

Still, I’d love to know more about why the LSE is abandoning TradElect and what the lessons are for those designing and implementing systems at this level.

The problems with TradElect are thoroughly debated in the comments here.

Update: Microsoft’s LSE Case Study from 2006 is here.

I have also received the following statement from a Microsoft spokesperson:

Microsoft continues to support some of the most demanding, mission-critical environments in the world and is constantly raising the performance bar with new solutions.  Most recently, Microsoft completed three different proof-of-concept projects for a major international stock exchange that demonstrate Windows Server 2008 and Microsoft .NET can successfully support very low latency trading activities, in the 100 microsecond range using standard 1 Gigabit Ethernet.  With the addition of Microsoft Network Direct, that latency is further reduced by 50%, which is industry leading performance.

Adobe financials: little change in segment breakdown

Adobe has released its Q3 2009 results [pdf], which show a decline in both revenue and profits compared to Q3 2008. I’m not a financial analyst, but the general view seems to be that the figures are reasonable considering the economic downturn, and that Adobe has done well to trim its costs accordingly.

What interests me most is the breakdown [pdf] in Adobe’s revenue between tools and other services. Here’s what it was last time I looked:

Revenue by segment ($millions) FY2008 YTD August 2008 – representing 3 quarters

  • Creative Solutions $1564.3 [58.7%]
  • Business Productivity Solutions $786 [29.5%]
  • Mobile and Device solutions $64.9 [2.4%]
  • Other $249.4 [9.4%]

and now:

Revenue by segment ($millions) FY2008 YTD August 2009 – representing 3 quarters

  • Creative Solutions $1272.8 [58%]
  • Business Productivity Solutions $646.7 [30%]
  • Platform Revenue $134 [6%]
  • Print and Publishing 135.1 [6%]

It’s unfortunate that the last two categories have changed, but the general picture seems to be much as before.

Creative Solutions means mainly Creative Suite.

Business productivity is Acrobat and LiveCycle, including

Platform is Flash Player, AIR, Cold Fusion, Flex and the developer tools.

Print and Publishing is the stuff you might have forgotten about: FrameMaker and PageMaker, Director, PostScript, Robohelp, and a few other bits and pieces. It’s interesting that these older products generated more revenue than the trendy new platform, Flex and AIR.

A couple of observations. First, Adobe is making little progress in reducing its dependence on sales of tools – I don’t know if this is even its aim, though it strikes me that it should be, since the tools business is a precarious one and prone to commoditization. As I understand it, Adobe has considerable ambitions for building as a cloud service but this looks like mostly future hope.

Second, the huge success of Flash media on the web does not seem to be showing up as increased revenue. Maybe Microsoft’s efforts with Silverlight streaming are exerting a downward pressure on prices?

Adobe may say it is well positioned to benefit from economic recovery, which actually seems plausible.

Disclosure: I deliberately avoid investing in companies about which I write.

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Should you swap your laptop hard drive for an SSD?

I’ve just been briefed by Kingston on the merits of its SSD Drives. Sandisk also has a range. Solid-state storage, capacity typically 128GB but larger is possible, lower power consumption (so longer battery life), better reliability (nearly drop-proof), and faster.

Kingston gave a demo showing how an SSD-equipped Toshiba laptop booted more quickly and processed images faster than an allegedly identical model with a conventional hard drive.

The company will be providing bundles that make it easy to switch. You get a USB case into which you insert your new SSD drive. Run the supplied cloning software, unscrew the drive flap on the laptop and swap the drives. Worth doing?

It strikes me as worth considering, but there are a couple of snags. One is cost and capacity – your SSD drive will be more expensive and store less than the old rotating type. That could change – but beware betting against hard drives, they are one of IT’s great survivors.

The other snag is that although SSD drives apparently score better on reliability – what the industry measures as MTBF or Mean Time Before Failure – they have a special bad habit of their own, which is that capacity gradually reduces as they wear.

What happens is that as cells wear out, the clever firmware remaps them to good cells, ensuring that your data is safe, but reducing the capacity.

The one “errm I’ll get back to you on that” moment comes when I ask what might be the normal expectation, in terms of how rapidly capacity reduces with normal usage. It is determined by how many writes you make; clearly it helps to have generous RAM in order to reduce the usage of temporary files.

The man from Kingston also revealed that some SSD drives have hidden reserves. For example, 10% extra capacity might be unavailable for use initially, but swapped in as it is needed. This hides the problem for a while, but does not cure it.

Still, you would think that SSD will win out in the end, as capacity improves and cost comes down. Further, if your main concern is how long the battery lasts on your train journeys and transatlantic flights, SSD is definitely worth a look. Many netbooks come with SSD as standard – the first device I had which uses them was an Asus Eee PC.

Sony’s Flash advantage for PlayStation 3 vs Xbox 360

Sony’s PlayStation 3 includes a web browser and for some time it has been possible to view BBC iPlayer content there. The iPlayer is based on Adobe Flash. The attraction of this approach is that the console is already plugged into the home TV, so it is a relatively seamless shift from conventional broadcasting, provided you can figure out how to operate it using a game controller.

According to the BBC’s Anthony Rose, people are figuring this out big time, now that Sony has both enhanced Flash with h.264 support and full-screen hardware acceleration, and added an iPlayer icon to the PS3 menu (I should think the latter counted for more than the former). He’s revealed on the BBC Internet blog that:

… iPlayer on PS3 now accounts for a massive ~10% of all iPlayer viewing, overtaking Mac (8.5%) to be our 2nd most popular platform for IP-delivered content.

I find that impressive given that the PS3 is still marketed primarily as a games console.

The obvious question: what about Xbox 360, which is inherently more than capable of the same feat? The problem is that Flash is not supported on the 360, nor does it have a web browser. You can watch TV via a 360, by using it as a Media Center Extender, but that means getting quite a few other pieces in place in your digital home, including a Media Center PC with a TV aerial plugged into it – and even then, you are not getting iPlayer, just digital TV.

There are a couple of solutions that come to mind. One is that Microsoft could get together with Adobe and support Flash on the 360. The other is that Microsoft could get a move on with its Silverlight support on 360 and persuade the BBC to serve up iPlayer content for Silverlight as well as Flash. Both are technically feasible; the first would be easier for the BBC but embarrassing for Microsoft, which is promoting its own video streaming technology, while the second would be expensive for the BBC.

Another party which is likely to be watching with interest is ITV, which has its own catch-up service. This used to be based on Silverlight but now seems to be pretty much all Flash, perhaps because of quality problems or simply to take advantage of the wider deployment of the Flash runtime. Even though it does not have its own icon on a PS3, you could watch ITV Player via the browser.

Catch-up viewing is popular, and this sensible Flash-based development alongside existing Blu-ray support gives Sony’s machine a substantial advantage over the 360 when considered as a home entertainment device, rather than merely a games console. I’d expect this to be a significant factor as buyers make their choices in the coming Christmas season.

Finally, I wonder what other interesting potential there is for runtimes like Flash or Silverlight on a game console that is wired directly into the family home? Could there be a PS3 app store in the console’s future?

Update: A couple of informative comments below observe that there is a way to get iPlayer on the 360 via WMV download and Media Center; and that Sky Player is Silverlight-based and coming to Xbox. So it is not game over yet.

The desktop versus web application debate

I posted a piece entitled Desktop applications are dead which attracted the following comment:

Web apps have plenty of cons too. You seem to only be looking to the Pros.

There’s something in it; though the article is a little more nuanced than its title. There’s also another debate to be had around the question of what a web application really is. If thousands of lines of JavaScript are executing on the client, is it a web app? If it is running in Flash or Silverlight is it a web app? If it is running out of browser (Adobe AIR, Silverlight, JavaFX) has it crossed the border to become a desktop app? This last case is particularly interesting, since although something like AIR should probably be categorised as desktop, its programming model is normally that of a web application with an offline cache.

The semantic discussion can distract from the real issues. The ascendancy of web applications has a lot to teach software developers. The enforced simplicity, even crudeness, in the user interface of early web applications brought some surprising benefits: users generally liked the minimalist approach and ease of navigation. The page model, intended for documents, turns out to work for applications as well.

Another big lesson: users value zero-install extremely highly. The routine of go to the web page – run the app is easy to understand. Some find it easier than finding an application shortcut in the Windows Start menu, and that is after the potentially painful business of running setup.

Still, I am slipping into reiterating the advantages of web apps. What about their cons? What about the pros of desktop applications?

I still use desktop applications a great deal: Microsoft Office, Live Writer, Foobar, Visual Studio, Eclipse, all the things I listed in 10 Mac alternatives to Windows utilities. Doesn’t that prove that desktop applications are still important?

It does; but there is an important qualification. None of these are line of business applications of the type which occupy so much of the time of corporate software developers and contractors.

The real point: if there is a discussion about whether a particular project should be implemented as a desktop or web application, it is not the web application advocates who need to make their case. Rather, it is the desktop advocates who need to show the particular reasons (which may be good ones) why only a traditional local install will do.

It is also important to follow the curve on the graph. The list of things that can only be done by desktop applications gets shorter with every upgrade to the web platform – whether you think of that as HTML/AJAX, Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight, or [insert your favourite web technology].

Ten years ago, a web version of Photoshop seemed an unlikely prospect. Today, here it is. Office and email is going the same way, even if it is not quite ready for all of us; Microsoft will have to accept that or lose its business.

I don’t follow Rich Internet Applications with such interest because they are cool, but because they are the future of the client – and increasingly the present as well.

The Beatles, iTunes, and 09 09 09

Apple (computer) held a press event yesterday, one that had been buzzed extensively ahead of time. The date was 9th September 2009, or 09/09/09, and the same date as the worldwide release of the Beatles remasters. The date ties in with a song on Let it Be, One after 909, and a song on the White Album called Revolution 9.

Despite the enduring popularity of the band, the Beatles music is not available on iTunes … yet. Naturally, the pundits foresaw a Beatlish announcement.

It seemed obvious; but doubts were raised when the official invitations went out. The invitations bore a lyric not from Lennon and/or McCartney, but rather from the Rolling Stones: It’s only rock and roll, but we like it.

As it turned out, Apple (computer) announced new iPods and an update to iTunes, but there was nothing about the Beatles.

What goes on? It’s now clear that the remastered Beatles were headed for iTunes – and probably still are – but whatever deal was in place fell through. The first evidence was a rapidly withdrawn comment from Yoko Ono shortly before the press event. Now we have confirmation from Bob Smeaton, who created mini-documentaries that are included with the new CDs:

Originally what happened was, the albums were going to be released on iTunes but that deal, you know, fell through for whatever reason. Some sort of political reason. So we actually set about creating a mini-documentary for each of the albums, so that when you bought the albums on iTunes, if you bought the whole album, because on iTunes you can pick like one song, right, if you bought the whole album, as an incentive to buy the whole album rather than just to cherry-pick songs, you would get this mini-documentary.

Indeed, this idea of bonus non-musical content that you get when purchasing an entire album from iTunes was announced yesterday. The concept is imaginatively called the iTunes LP – but only a few examples are available so far, just six according to Cult of Mac – Dylan’s Highway 61, The Doors 40th anniversary hits, American Beauty by the Grateful Dead, and albums by the Dave Matthews Band, Tyrese Gibson and Norah Jones. Pretty unexciting, especially when compared to a might-have-been announcement of all the Beatles albums appearing on iTunes for the first time and in the snazzy new format.

Of course you can have the Beatles in iTunes if you want to. Just buy the CDs and import them; and I’ve heard tell of other methods that fall foul of copyright.

Still, it seems Apple (computer) vs Apple (corps) is not quite over yet. No wonder Steve Jobs chose a lyric from that other Sixties band to launch the iTunes LP.

Amazon’s sneakernet for the cloud

I’m not writing as much about Amazon Web Services as I once did – not because they are less interesting, but because they are so successful and well covered. Still, one thing that did catch my eye recently is the new import/export feature, now in beta. The idea seems contrary at first: deliver or export data from your Amazon internet storage using the latest variant of sneakernet – copy stuff to a drive, and take it physically to the destination.

The thing is, copying data over the Internet is relatively slow and expensive. Once the volume of data gets beyond a certain point, it is cheaper to transport a hard drive. I remember Sun telling me the same thing in relation to its data centers: for large volumes of data, the most cost effective way to shift it is on a truck.

Amazon’s system is not normally on that scale, but it is the same principle: you send them a portable hard drive. There’s even a handy chart explaining how much data you need for this to be worth doing:

Available Internet Connection Theoretical Min. Number of Days to Transfer 1TB at 80% Network Utilization When to Consider AWS Import/Export?
T1 (1.544Mbps) 82 days 100GB or more
10Mbps 13 days 600GB or more
T3 (44.736Mbps) 3 days 2TB or more
100Mbps 1 to 2 days 5TB or more
1000Mbps Less than 1 day 60TB or more

The cost? $80 per storage device, plus $2.49 per data-loading hour.

Many home and small business users have ADSL with a maximum upload speed of 1Mb – slower than anything considered on the chart above. If you have a large database or media collection to put on S3, sneakernet soon makes sense.