Not Quite User-Friendly

I'm finally buying into the notion that in the next few years the application service provider model will become a major factor in the way enterprises do business - but only as long as the user is at a fixed terminal.

Im finally buying into the notion that in the next few years the application service provider model will become a major factor in the way enterprises do business — but only as long as the user is at a fixed terminal. The more I study Microsofts plans for Office.Net, the more Im persuaded that productivity software should not be delivered online in the foreseeable future.

For the record, I dont consider myself an Office basher. Its just that Ive used it loyally for years, which I feel gives me the right — nay, the obligation! — to bitch about it continually. But my dirty little secret is that, having tried StarOffice and Corels WordPerfect suite, I would far rather fight than switch. Even if the strongest defense of Office is that its the best of a bad lot, theres a good reason it now accounts for 37 percent of all Microsoft sales: It gets the job done.

But when I consider how Office.Net would shuttle data and features among servers and clients, I shudder. Enterprises and individual consumers alike will be locked into a pay-as-you-go model in which we dont buy software — we pay for access to it. For me, the access is the deal killer.

My greatest fear of Office.Net arises not from the enormity of the coding challenge so much as from a very precarious dependence on the network. Consider the plight of the business traveler. Today, I carry the complete version of Office on my laptop. No matter where I am, as long as I have battery power or access to an electrical outlet, I have full access to all Office applications and features.

But in Microsofts vision of tomorrow, Ill also need access to bandwidth wherever I happen to be. Sure, Ill be able to do some limited client things, such as rich-text editing, without an Internet link, but for the complete product I enjoy today, Im going to need a fat pipe wherever I go. To one extent or another, Microsoft is going to keep us all on virtual umbilical cords. Disconnect us from our Redmond womb, and well be on basic life support.

Microsofts strategy, of course, assumes the ubiquitous network that will surely be a reality any day now. Are they smoking weird substances in Redmond, or do they just never leave the campus? As I travel around the country, throwing my lot in with millions of other victims of planes, trains, airports and hotels, the reality Im discovering is the ubiquitous hassle.

Nor is it likely to get better soon. Yes, you can rent access to a high-speed, pay-per-millisecond Ethernet connection in some airports if you dont mind coughing up dollars for a service that corrupts your network settings. Yes, more hotels now offer high-speed access, but most of the time the services seem to be down.

And the more I investigate various new mobile data technologies, the more convinced I am that were only now entering the winter of our bandwidth discontent.

Whats more, in recent weeks, Interactive Week has reported that companies supplying high-speed access to planes and hotels are pulling out of those businesses en masse because they cant make the economics work. For the foreseeable future, that virtual umbilical cord Microsoft keeps touting is going to be nothing but a big old belly button — natures original closed port.

Call me cynical, but the Office.Net scheme is not going to make sense for business travelers for several years, which is why productivity software, by its nature, defies the ASP model. If I cant use my entire suite wherever I happen to be, I want a different suite.

For all the forward thinking evidenced in Microsofts .Net strategy, the Office tactics articulated so far amount to nothing but a fantasy of never-ending revenue streams, not a user-centric product rooted in reality.