I’ve argued in the past that the holy office trinity of Word, Powerpoint and Excel have a questionable future not because of an better word processor, presentation tool or spreadsheet coming along, but because they are tools from another era that are increasingly no longer fit for purpose. The way in which smart phones in particular are increasingly embedded into our work and not-work lives will force a change in the way in which we create, collaborate and share information within our organisations.

I’m realising though that there are flies in that particular ointment. Having spent much of the last seven months looking at new forms of communication tool (and having been involved in the space for much longer) there are two key challenges: firstly resistance to changing work patterns, and secondly the lack of standards.

It’s really hard to get people to change how they operate. Most people use software pretty much in the way that they did when they first learned it. Rarely in busy working life do we have the time or energy to look up to see if there is a better way to achieve a particular thing because it will take longer than the possibly manual methods we know. Attempts to automate that discovery resulted in the much derided Clippy and his “You appear to be writing a letter…” clumsiness. As I heard it put recently, if everyone learned to use Excel Macros, unemployment would triple overnight.

When you look at the newer components of the Office, particularly OneNote, you find a tool that few people (comparatively) use, even though it’s much closer to being fit for purpose to our complex, multi-document digital working lives than the rest of the tools available. But tools like OneNote (and Evernote, and the much stripped-down Google Keep) open up another set of challenges – that modern digital tools are closed proprietary worlds without open standards.

And here is the second barrier to the toppling of the trinity: without standards and interoperability, organisations will be reticent to trust their data into formats that lock them into using particular suppliers.

In the word processing/presentation tools/spreadsheet world we have a number of standards. There are the proprietary Microsoft file formats, that can be read by many other tools; there are a set of competing open standards like ODF. There are other things, like PDF. You’re not committing yourself to Microsoft forever by using Microsoft Word (at least not if you’re reasonably careful).

But complex data in tools like OneNote or Evernote is tied to those products. You can export in flatter formats, but the richness of experience is tied to a vendor. Similarly with the Enterprise Social Networks like Yammer, Huddle and others. You might be able to get your data exported, but don’t expect to be able to use it any where else.

This is a big barrier to adoption. It’s also somewhat surprising as I thought the industry had turned a corner with the advent of Cloud.

Before commodity Cloud services came along, “exit strategies” weren’t talked about that much in IT. It was assumed that data sitting on a machine in your own server room was yours, even if it was logically trapped into a structure created by a software supplier that made it unusable in any other form.

With the arrival of internet-hosted public Cloud services, business customers wanted more assurance. If they were going to trust their data in the data centres of vendors, they wanted to know how they could get at it in the event of wishing to change supplier. Exit strategies, often based around open standards, became expected in a way that we hadn’t seen before.

But with new platforms offering new functionality, this requirement seems to be ebbing away again. And maybe this will become a way in which the outdated trinity toolset will keep its claws in businesses for many years to come. Not because we don’t need new tools, but just because the costs of shifting (in time, in effort more than in cash) are too great to bear. That they will become living anachronisms in computing along with the QWERTY keyboard…

3 thoughts on “Incompatibilities

  1. Before cloud it was possible to keep proprietary data in the hope that an exporter or reader might become available in the future. Now that the data is stored on “someone else’s computer” it is sometimes quite tricky to get at the underlying data at all.

    Cloud exits come in three flavours, all potentially as dangerous as each other for the customers:

    1) The vendor fails and just disappears.
    2) The vendor pivots or loses interest in their product because they don’t achieve a critical mass.
    3) The vendor is acquired and the new owner is not interested in running the service any more.

    As an open source person, I fell that “we” spent the ’90s making good headway with viable alternatives to propietary products and formats. With cloud services, the end user has lost the potential advantages that that delivered as, even tho’ a lot of Cloud services are based on open source software, access to the data and tools to process it are expensive and difficult for the vendors to provide. Even those vendors who see their API as a selling point still have trouble keeping the API apps as a first class user experience, especially when the data is taken out of the original service. Most API consumers assume that the original service will be around indefinitely.

    This is a big risk, especially in a world where cloud services are offered on “standard” terms to everone. It’s often difficult or impossible for a regular business to negotiate much in the way of guarantees or SLAs from the SaaS providers and that’s often by the design of the business models that the vendors conciously and decisively operate under.

  2. Following on from andyjpb’s point about cloud exits, isn’t there a fourth exit where the cloud operator’s business model no longer meets the business need of the customer? How portable is your cloud solution in that case, and how can you make sure that you’re not locked-in just as you could be on-premise?

    Going back to Matt’s original point, collaboration and sharing are definitely enabled by mobile, but has anyone found a really good way of “creating” on a 4.7″ screen?

    1. Through apps… With zoho I often create and issue invoices for clients. Expense management is a doodle with expensify. I create PDFs with the aid of Google drive and the phone camera. And with a Bluetooth keyboard most of my blogging is done on my nexus with the WordPress app. And that’s just top of my head…

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