Is Desktop Software Dead?

When was the last time you were impressed by desktop software?

Really impressed?

After seeing (in chronological order) Steve Jobs, Al Gore and Tim Bray make use of Apple Keynote, I absolutely had to give it a try. And impressed I was – and to some extent, still am. For me, this revelation happened about a year ago. I cannot recall the previous instance – i.e., the time I was truly impressed by desktop software.

Although I may be premature, I can’t help but ask: Is desktop software dead?
A few data points:
  • Wikipedia states: “There is no page titled “desktop software”.” What?! I suppose you could argue I’m hedging my bets by choosing an obscure phrase (not!), but seriously, it is remarkable that there is no Wikipedia entry for “desktop software”!
  • Microsoft, easily the leading purveyor of desktop software, is apparently in trouble. Although Gartner’s recent observations target Microsoft Windows Vista, this indirectly spells trouble for all Windows applications as they rely heavily on the platform provided by Vista.
  • There’s an innovation’s hiatus. And that’s diplomatically generous! Who really cares about the feature/functionality improvements in, e.g., Microsoft Office? When was the last time a whole new desktop software category appeared? Even in the Apple Keynote example I shared above, I was impressed by Apple’s spin on presentation software. Although Keynote required me to unlearn habits developed through years of use Microsoft PowerPoint, I was under no delusions of having entered some new genre of desktop software.
  • Thin is in! The bloatware that is modern desktop software is crumbling under its own weight. It must be nothing short of embarrassing to see this proven on a daily basis by the likes of Google Docs. Hardware vendors must be crying in their beers as well, as for years consumers have been forced to upgrade their desktops to accommodate the latest revs of their favorite desktop OS and apps. And of course, this became a negatively reinforcing cycle, as the hardware upgrades masked the inefficiencies inherent in the bloated desktop software. Thin is in! And thin, these days, doesn’t necessarily translate to a penalty in performance.
  • Desktop software is reaching out to the network. Despite efforts like Microsoft Office Online, the lacklustre results speak for themselves. It’s 2008, and Microsoft is still playing catch up with upstarts like Google. Even desktop software behemoth Adobe has shown better signs of getting it (network-wise) with recent entres such as Adobe Air. (And of course, with the arrival of Google Gears, providers of networked software are reaching out to the desktop.)

The figure below attempts to graphically represent some of the data points I’ve ranted about above.

In addition to providing a summary, the figure suggests:

  • An opportunity for networked, Open Source software. AFAIK, that upper-right quadrant is completely open. I haven’t done an exhaustive search, so any input would be appreciated.
  • A new battle ground. Going forward, the battle will be less about commercial versus Open Source software. The battle will be more about desktop versus networked software.

So: Is desktop software dead?

Feel free to chime in!

To Do for Microsoft: Create a Wikipedia entry for “desktop software”.

Google Docs: A Tool for Annotation

Google Docs supports comments.

First you select text, or place the cursor somewhere in your document.

Then you click on the “Insert” tab and finally on “Comment”. (“Ctrl-M” also works as a keyboard shortcut.)

You can now type directly into the comment area. The comment area is clearly delineated by a color of your choosing.

I’ve attached an example (oars_abstract) produced with Google Docs. It’s rendered here in PDF so that the comment can be viewed.

For additional help with comments, you can have a look at the Google Docs & Spreadsheets Help Center.

As I’ve blogged elsewhere, this is an example of annotation in the context of word processing.

In the case of Google Docs, this is precisely where I’d love to see an integration with Google Notebook. More specifically, extend the Google Docs notion of a comment by allowing for a Web-addressable comment. In delivering a comment that can be identified by a URL (or even better a URI), we’re closer to having an annotation.

And while we’re at it, one more thing. I’d like the resulting annotation to make use of XPointer 😉

Google Apps vs. Microsoft Office: It’s All About Platform Dominance

Remember the browser wars? Netscape vs. Microsoft?

What was ultimately at stake technically?

Platform dominance.

Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen spoke frequently of browser-as-platform.

And let’s face it, the folks in Redmond have made a healthy business by owning the desktop platform. (In fact, based on the number of anti-trust suits against them, Microsoft may have been a tad too agressive in their quest for platform dominance.)

Why are software companies obsessed with platform dominance?

If you own the platform, you have a controlling influence in owning the software stack.

If you control/own the software stack, you own the customer.

How does this apply to Google Apps For Your Domain (GAFYD) vs. Microsoft Office?

Consider the Microsoft Office stack.


Individual applications like Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel are ultimately built upon the Microsoft Windows. Common functionalities, tools and utilities, plus the interoperability that exists between applications, is enabled by Microsoft’s Component Object Model (COM). (Object Linking and Embedding, OLE, was superceded by COM.) Although third-party software providers can and do leverage Microsoft Windows and Microsoft COM, in the case of Microsoft Office, this is a wholly proprietary, single-vendor software stack. Own the stack, own the customer. Note also that any Internetworking capabilities are inherited by the applications in Microsoft Office via COM and Windows. Unfortunately, I don’t know to what extent Microsoft Office Live modifies this stack.

Now consider the GAFYD stack.

[Update: I’ve misplaced this figure. Please see the revised stack referenced in the comments.]

GAFYD exist within the context of a Web browser. GAFYD likely leverages various Googlisms made available via a Google API. Analogous to COM in the Microsoft case, this API can be and is being leveraged by third parties. The foundation for Google is based on a number of open standards:

  • XML for expressibility
  • HTTP and SOAP for exchanges
  • URIs for addressing

In addition to these underlying open standards, GAFYD has the potential to leverage emerging Web middleware such as Web Services, the Semantic Web and Grid Computing.

[Update: I’ve misplaced this figure. Please see the revised stack referenced in the comments.]

Along with his co-authors, Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has recently framed this context more completely elsewhere. The last two schematics are interpolated and extrapolated from the figure provided in the Berners-Lee et al. Science paper. The resulting unbundled, open-standards software stack is Web enabled from the outset. In striking contrast to the Microsoft case, GAFYD will likely result in a software ecosystem completely analogous to that developing around the Linux operating environment. This means that Google will battle Microsoft with only limited control of the software stack. They’ll need to rely on leveraging the rest of the stack, and ensuring that the promise of the Web (e.g., Web Services, the Semantic Web and Grid Computing) can be realized in GAFYD.

Google Apps & Google Notebook

Although my enthusiasm for Google Apps for Your Domain (GAFYD) may appear lukewarm at best, I do hope that this venture leads to mass-market adoption.


Google’s intersection with office-productivity suites is likely to stimulate innovation.

For example, I’ve blogged a fair bit recently about annotation. Google has a mechanism for annotation in Google Notebook, as does Microsoft Word. GAFYD will allow annotations to be recontextualized for the Web-enabled office. In fairness, and to avoid the Google vs. Microsoft double standard, I expect all of this will also apply to Microsoft Office Live.

It’ll be interesting to watch this unfold.

Microsoft Word: A Tool for Annotation

Not too long ago I blogged about Google Notebook as a tool for annotation.

Of course, annotation isn’t a new concept, and therefore there are other tools that allow for it.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft Word is one of these tools. By use of comments, Word allows for annotation. I’ve made available Word and PDF examples elsewhere. In addition to annotations via Word comments being author and date stamped, my example illustrates how annotations via Word comments:

  • Can indicate a specific point in a document – The start or end of the orignal blog post in my example
  • Can span a number of document elements – A few paragraphs and an item of a bulleted list in my example

My example also illustrates how annotations via comments are distinct from tracked changes, the latter being another very powerful capabilty in Word.

Although Word can annotate to at least the degree described here, there is one aspect that is limiting. To be wholly useful in the context of annotation, Microsoft needs to expose its mechanism of fragment identification. This is the Word equivalent of an XPointer entry. (The same applies to Google Notebook. Microsoft and Google may have already allowed for this through some API, Application Programming Interface. I just haven’t spent any time looking for them.) Using my Mac, I converted the Word example into HTML. (Sorry, WordPress wouldn’t allow me to upload it!) Comments become linked footnotes. Although this is understandable, aspects of the annotation are lost in translation. I’ll look at an XML-based representation next time I’m at my desktop PC to see if that does any better. Stay tuned.

In closing, it’s important to note that Word is representative of current office productivity software in its ability to convey annotations. In other words, I would expect that OpenOffice and others could do the same. Somewhat related Adobe Acrobat also allows for a similar capability in the case of PDF documents.