Predicting the demise of Microsofts flagship office is a little like being a Red Sox fan rooting for an upset of the Yankees. The eternal cry of “Wait til next year” could just as easily emerge from supporters of new challengers such as the Open Source Applications Foundations Chandler or Suns Java Desktop System, joining the vanquished Corel, Novell and Lotus of yesteryear.
Just as the Yankees perpetuate their supremacy by leveraging their dominant TV market share to buy new talent, Microsoft has used its desktop operating system clout to fend off challenges.
But a disruptive technology is emerging that could change everything. For my money, its RSS (known alternately as Really Simple Syndication or Resource Description Framework Site Summary). Im not talking about the embedded Outlook plug-in of todays PC; Im talking about a technology that could be as disruptive to personal computing as the digital video recorder has been to television.
The DVR started as an early-adopter tool for the media elite and is now seeing further adoption in satellite TV packages. Next-generation TVs will ship DVR-ready. RSS, too, began as a tool of the tech elite. Generated by Weblog authoring tools such as the pioneering Radio UserLand, RSS feeds were consumed by a growing circle of cross-linking bloggers and a spillover audience from the trade press. But vendors and developers soon saw the opportunity to deliver content directly to the technical audience, and users saw a way to route around the growing inefficiency of e-mail and Web browsing.
Suddenly, the Windows advantage as the essential platform for applications was neutralized. In a pre-RSS world on a ThinkPad, I spent about 40 percent of my time in the browser, an equal amount in my e-mail client, and the rest in Word, Excel or PowerPoint. Now, on the Mac PowerBook, I spend 40 percent of my time in NetNewsWire (the leading Mac RSS reader), 20 percent in Entourage X (the Mac Office mail client), an equal amount in the Safari browser, and the rest in Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
Its by choice—and a bit of couch-potato inertia—that I still use Entourage X and Word. Mac OS Xs “Panther” includes beefed-up versions of Mail and Text Edit that are sufficient for most of what I actually do with their Office counterparts. A stand-alone Keynote presentation tool is a worthy replacement for my PowerPoint needs, but its OS Xs system services that deliver today what “Longhorn” promises for tomorrow.
With Safari, browsing is now an operating system service. So are spelling checking, Zip compression and, most important, instant messaging services. iChat AV brings usable videoconferencing to the table, integrating IM presence information with any tool that wants to take advantage of its service.
Its the combination of these system services that produces the RSS information router. IM presence can be used to signal users that important RSS items are available for immediate downloading, eliminating the latency of 30-minute RSS feed polling while shifting strategic information transfer out of e-mail and into collaborative groups.
Technology conferences are already seeing 50 percent share of Mac PowerBooks, but the iSight videoconferencing camera can now be used with QuickTime Broadcast or inexpensive third-party tools to stream sessions on the Internet. RSS extensions such as Radio UserLands Enclosures can archive large video and audio files overnight for playback in the RSS container or via an iPod.
Advances in RSS search, offline storage, authenticated feeds, embedded browser rendering and rich authoring tools are in progress, and all kinds of data are yielding to the RSS momentum.
Sure, but as one e-mailer asked me, “Why would developers switch to a platform of only 7 million users?” Perhaps they wont. But they will take a careful look at a Linux look-alike such as Suns Java Desktop System, particularly with its forthcoming Looking Glass user interface and a rumored RSS tool based on Mozillas cross-platform browser.
Sun has no problem disrupting Outlooks market share with a free RSS router, something Microsoft is loath to do. RSS puts users in charge and at a price they can afford: free.
Contributing Editor Steve Gillmor is editor of eWEEK.coms Messaging and Collaboration Center. His e-mail address is [email protected]