Sun and Google

So Sun and Google are to Partner on Software, a deal that – at the moment – looks like nothing in particular. As one friend of mine said, "since when do reciprocal links need press conferences?" Jupiter’s David Card decribes the deal as "meaningless", while the same company’s Joe Wilcox disagrees a bit and says that he "wouldn’t underestimate the significance" of the deal. My own personal take is that, while the deal is distinctly underwhealming at present, it’s one to watch in the future.

What everyone really wants, of course, is for Google to do for office applications what it did for email: turn it into a Web 2.0 application. There’s been a lot of talk about what Web 2.0 applications are of late, partly inspired by a piece by Tim O’Reilly in which he tries to characterise what this new wave of web applications is all about. My own take on that is fairly simple: A Web 2.0 application is something that has an open API, and where the Web interface is an equal to any existing desktop application interfaces. Importantly, it’s also characterised by online storage being the "main" repository for documents, rather than local storage. Forget about use of AJAX or whatever other industry buzzword is going round: those kinds of things are just temporary, they’re about implementation not the core of what Web 2.0 is.

Flickr is the classic example of a Web 2.0 application, but Gmail counts also. Gmail can be used as either a Web-based or local email service. With Google Desktop, it really doesn’t care if the mail is local or not – search delivers the results. But the key thing is that Gmail allows you to store all your mail online, which shifts the old paradigm for email. Prior to Gmail, you stored recent mail on the server and an archive on a local machine. Gmail twisted that around, and delivered a Web-based client that offered a new view on email (as conversations) that meant it was a match for a desktop client.

Office applications – word processing, spreadsheets, presentations – are the next big thing to go Web 2.0. At present, there’s some applications online – such as Writely – which make a creditable attempt at replicating a word processor in a web browser. But the problem with them is their lack of integration with the desktop, and that there’s no desktop client capable of acting as an equal client to the web version. What you really want is something a little like the Blogger Word plug in: press a button, and something’s published to Writely instead of your local drive, and, as of that moment, the fact that it’s online (and available for editing in a browser if you so choose) shouldn’t matter one jot. Transparency is the key.

I think that was what people were hoping the Google/Sun deal would deliver, and so far it hasn’t. Personally, it’s going to take a lot to ween me away from Word, which I think is a very underrated and misunderstood program – but a version of OpenOffice that worked seamlessly with a service like the one I’ve described would probably do it.