An old-fashioned monopoly and Writely so?

I’ve long been a close observer of the developing contest between IT titans Microsoft and Google. That’s why I was especially interested by this announcement a couple of days ago:

Internet search leader Google has acquired Upstartle, a small startup that runs a collaborative word processor inside Web browsers, according to a posting on Google’s official press site on Friday.

Upstartle runs Writely.com, which helps people access and edit documents from any computer on the internet.

The company’s programs also help people post blogs, publish web documents and work with multiple authors to edit a piece of writing.

It gives rise to some fascinating questions. Is Google really planning to go head-to-head with Microsoft with a web-based version of MS Office? It certainly looks that way. As someone at TechCrunch commented:

Nice, this triggers at least another 2 rounds of guessing games though. If Writely is MS Word, who will Google buy to complete the holy triumvirate that makes up MS Office? irows? jotspot? to compete against MS Excel? thumbstacks.com for MS Powerpoint?

How good and fully featured is Writely compared with a fully featured “traditional” word-processing program? It’s hard to tell because they’ve closed off new downloads until Writely moves across to Google’s web servers. But a fairly close look at the screen capture shots at the Writely website suggests that it’s so far mostly just a fairly basic WYSIWYG editor (although hopefully much better than the WordPress 2 editor, which from Club Troppo’s experience so far appears to be a heap of crap) with some inbuilt collaborative features and Blogger-style free sub-domain space.

That won’t necessarily be a drawback for most people. Very few users utilise many of the more complex features of MS Word or Corel Word Perfect etc (mail merge, for instance), and most probably don’t even know they exist. Moreover, the Writely FAQ suggest that they’re going to build in more complex functionality in due course and charge a premium subscription for it while leaving the basic product free:

Our hope is to have the basic service be free, with some extra features requiring a reasonable subscription fee*. We will also be charging license fees to corporations and partners.

Although open source fans like Nicholas Gruen may disagree, it sounds like an excellent business model to me. That brings me to another fascinating point. Google, like its gargantuan competitor Microsoft, appears to have eschewed the Holy Open Source Road to Damascus in favour of a more old-fashioned aspiring monopolist strategy of acquiring the traditional copyright of clever startups with excellent new products in order to build a true monopoly on a grand scale. Who is to say Gates and Google’s Brin et al are idiots who would be better advised to adopt an open source model? All indicators suggest that they’re anything but fools. Their business models may not optimise software development through a truly open marketplace of ideas, but how important is that? If competition continues to deliver progress at the current rate, and if products like Microsoft’s IE browser, Google’s search engine and Blogger and now Writely are made available free of charge, then a quite extraordinary broadening of the sharing of human knowledge is already occurring across fields of knowledge vastly more diverse than just software programming, despite the biggest players’ mostly rejecting the much-touted benefits of open source.

Of course, Google as the world’s no.1 web-based deliverer of functionality (if not content) benefits especially from freely available browsers, and it’s a fair bet that IE wouldn’t still be free if it weren’t for surviving open source competitors like Mozilla and Firefox. Google is also manifestly heavily dependent on web servers, where the open source Apache maintains unchallenged market dominance despite Microsoft’s best efforts. But the fact remains that both Microsoft and Google in their core business strategies have conspicuously failed to adopt open source and have nevertheless continued to thrive and grow ever larger. Could it be that open source is a good strategy to permit survival against the big boys, but that traditional copyright remains the preferred model for those aspiring to true mega-tycoondom? And is mega-tycoondom necessarily an evil for the rest of us, as long as the extremes of predatory monopolist behaviour are restrained by competition regulators?

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Stephen Bounds
15 years ago

To me, it seems that the strategies we are seeing are no more than a typical company lifecycle. Both Google (in 2006) and Microsoft (in 1997) came to dominate their market because they met user needs better than anyone else and provided innovative solutions.

Once their dominance is established, the strategy changes to “lock in” users through cross-promotion. Typically, this involves providing a suite of services that all complement each other (for Microsoft, Windows and Office including Sharepoint and SQL Server; for Google, suites such as Google + GMail + Picasa + Blogger, and soon to be Writely).

The major difference is that almost all of Google’s services are free, but ad-supported. This means that Google doesn’t rely on customer sales, but on creating the most compelling user experience possible in order to draw eyeballs for advertisers. By contrast, it is in Microsoft’s interest to hold off feature improvements until the next iteration of software can be sold for a healthy price.

… I know which strategy looks better to me as an end-user.

“Could it be that open source is a good strategy to permit survival against the big boys, but that traditional copyright remains the preferred model for those aspiring to true mega-tycoondom?”

It’s certainly true that open source has proven to be the one model which is effective at competing against a software monopoly.

However, it’s not the only thing that open source is good at. In no particular order, open source promotes:

a) easy adding & removing of features, aka modularity
b) compliance with documented standards
c) reusable code “engines” to perform standard tasks
d) shared responsibility (vs the growing ligitation culture)

These have advantages beyond the mere price tag difference which seem to be the focus of most people in the Open Source debate.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Ken,

Your piece is very ‘either/or’ about OSS. Open and closed source will continue to be competitors in the software and IT ecosphere and in so doing will bring benefits to consumers.

I find it hard to believe that Microsoft Office apps will be as dominant in ten years time as they are now, and I expect open source will be a very important part of that process. At least Word is a quite good program. But MS powerpoint has always been pretty crappy. It gets where it gets through packaging. This is how MS will be trying to maintain its dominance – and maybe it will as interoperabiiity and ease of use is rightly prized.

Personally I find some of Google’s strategies pretty mystifying. As I mused in a post here I wonder why they don’t go after some traditional advertising markets like job search. And I wonder about their taboo on charging customers. Personally I’d be very happy to fork out – say – $50 for some rich client Google like search capabilities on my desktop. I find Google Desktop pretty crappy. Maybe that’s because I haven’t looked into it sufficiently, but how do you limit searches to specific folders, or specific file types or words only in file titles? Maybe it’s all easy – but I would have found out on a rich client search program I suspect. I can use Microsoft’s search, but then I have to wait around while it does the search.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
15 years ago

A few points:

1. As Nicholas points out, Google is ad-supported. It is viable for them to buy up services and put them out for free. I expect that anything written in Writely will have advertising somewhere onscreen, probably picking out words in the document a la Gmail.

However JavaScript, or ECMAScript as it is formally known, is not the ideal language for writing a you-beaut heavy duty application in. I know that Firefox and Thunderbird do so, but they also get access to various underlying libraries supplied by the Gecko Runtime through XPCOM – most definitely not available to anything which must run on Internet Explorer. Ditto using ActiveX to access Windows functionality.

Whereas Word for Windows and Word for OS X can safely assume the presence of full operating system functionality, rather than a cut down ECMAScript environment. The upshot? The Writely guys need will need to replicate OS functionality not present in the browser, and to do so will cost them more time than programmers of Word, OO Writer etc etc. It will also be more wasteful of resources.

I very much expect that it will remain “lightweight”, but very popular, in the same way that stuff like this site run WordPress and enterprises use Documentum or other industrial DMSes.

2. If Microsoft didn’t have competition for IE, they wouldn’t set a price on it: they’d just stop upgrading them other than to force customers to upgrade IIS from time to time. That’s what they did to IE on the Mac: it languished for years until competitors turned up on OS X.

3. If you want good desktop search, get a Mac. OS X Tiger has “Spotlight”, by far the most technically elegant, extensible and successful such system I’ve used. It’s also the quickest.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
15 years ago

I see also that WP 2 performs horrible transformation on lists. Bah!

david tiley
15 years ago

Jacques – should we stick to 1.5? We are poised to upgrade.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

David,

Don’t go anywhere near WP 2. It’s a nightmare if our experience is anything to go by. Look at the formatting of Ken’s Post. Ken’s fastidious about formatting, but has given up, in the face of WP 2’s army of gremlins.

Ron
Ron
15 years ago

I don’t understand your hangups with WP2 (by the way, 2.02 is the latest version).

As I mentioned in a previous comment, you do not have to use the WYSIWYG editor. You turn if it off in Users > Profile.

Upgrading is a simple process and can be done in an hour or two. Follow the instructions: http://codex.wordpress.org/Upgrading_WordPress

Ron
Ron
15 years ago

I wonder if your blockquote formatting problem may lie with your theme’s CSS? I use WP2 on several sites with various themes and the original blockquote formatting is retained on all of them (I don’t use the WYSIWYG).

Upgrading software like WP is not the same as upgrading other software like MS Word where you end up with a bloated product with 100s of ‘features’ never used by most users. I still prefer the DOS version of WordPerfect for long pieces of writing. With WP you might get a few new features (obvious V2 benefits are the wide range of plugins, increased security and the Askimet spam trap. I haven’t had one piece of spam get through since the move from 1.5 to 2.0.) but mostly its ‘under the bonnet’.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

The Troppmeister is working on these matters as we speak, and by dint of some fancy footwork with both CSS and coding WP (I’m impressed even if you’re not!) seems to be making progress.

Maybe there’ll be a little Troppo patch in WP for posterity.

Ron
Ron
15 years ago

Did I really use the term ‘hangups’ above? I wonder which century of my existence I excavated that from? Senility, my children assure me, is approaching fast.

Laura
15 years ago

Writely I only found out about two weeks ago and I have since used it a little bit, on a collaborative writing project. It certainly seems to work fine if you’re doing v. basic stuff and want wiki-like edit functionality without the challenge of setting up a wiki. Slightly off-topic but collaborating via a private wiki-type thing is shaping up to be a very interesting writing experience – most unlike the type of joint effort where two people each contribute one-half of the document.

Dunno if it could replace Word entirely, though.

For what it’s worth I came across this extensive list of web2.0 apps this morning, haven’t looked through them yet, but maybe one of these could do the job equally well yet remain open source.

In Google’s praise I must say that GMail is one of the very best pieces of software I’ve ever used. It is just so good. They’re welcome to my data.

david tiley
15 years ago

Thanks. One other sidebar question – now that I am using Firefox, the ability to split URLs to accomodate a box like this very one has disappeared. Both for WordPress with a Mac, and for our own interface on a PC. Is it just me?

Kent
Kent
15 years ago

Jacques,

Re desktop search, have you tried Quicksilver? It’s where they got the idea for Spotlight from, and remains far superior and much more versatile imho.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
15 years ago

Kent;

I’m not surprised Apple took inspiration from QuickSilver, it’s pretty good stuff. However the idea of desktop search is not new, and Spotlight has the advantage that it gets kernel events telling it whenever a new file has been created or saved, so it can index on-the-fly.

Gummo Trotsky
Gummo Trotsky
15 years ago

OpenOffice is good stuff if you’re looking for a MS Office replacement or surrogate. And yes, it will handle MS-Word documents. It’s also very cheap ;)