On Wednesday, the Office 2.0 conference in San Francisco will begin, and an amazing list of well-known and less well-known speakers will present their ideas and companies. I won't attend the conference, but I spent some time looking at the long list of Office 2.0 startups that will introduce their products.
While there now seems to be more agreement on what "Web 2.0" is, the meaning of "Office 2.0" is as blurry as ever. Fortunately, the conference organizers share their own definition:
"Imagine a computer that never crashes, or gets infected by a virus. Imagine a computer onto which you never have to install any application. Imagine a computer that follows you wherever you go, be it at school, at work, abroad, or back home."
Well, that would not be "Office 2.0", that would be computing heaven. So, back to reality.
The product ideas range from wikis on steroids to platforms that wildly combine about every single idea in the Web 2.0 playbook. Judging from the list of companies presenting on this event, there seem to be the following types of Office 2.0 startups:
- The good-old days enterprise plays: Wasn't there a time (long ago, about six months) when Web 2.0 had a counter-culture ring to it and was all about simplicity? When you look at some websites now, you don't see any difference in terms of communication style to very conventional enterprise software companies. The same lingo, the same generic improve-your-productivity slogans, the same confusing diagrams. Example: iUpload
- The secretive ones: There are some companies that have announced groundbreaking applications that will forever revolutionize the way humankind uses information. But unfortunately they won't show their product to anyone (example: Foldera). There are also some that have very nicely designed websites with lots of great buzzwords, but never really tell you what they actually do (example: System One). Reminds me of some Web 1.0 companies (BroadVision...).
- The recyclers: Enterprise content management. Whoa. A totally new concept? Of course not, but brush it up with a bit of social wikiness and some open source philosophy, and violà: Content Management 2.0 (Example: Alfresco). Or just take del.icio.us' idea, call it "enterprise social bookmarking", and you have a Office 2.0 startup (Example: ConnectBeam).
- The collaborators: Sure, collaboration is important. That's probably why there are so many products that allow you to share/task-manage/conference/integrate/collaborative-create just about anything with your colleagues and clients, all on a strictly web-only, subscription-oriented basis of course. (Example: CentralDesktop) Great, but I had most of this functionality back in 1993 on Lotus Notes, and let me tell you: The lack of software is not the biggest obsctacle to successful collaboration. Still, the advantages of simple web-based solutions are promising, but most companies are still way to tech-focused. No wonder that 37signals got most of the mindshare so far with their extreme focus on simplicity.
- The feature builders: An old VC rule is: Be a company, not a feature. Some startups are still very much on the feature side, and although some ideas are really clever, there's not really a good reason why Google or Yahoo couldn't simply build this functionality on their own (examples: Wufoo, Dabble DB) or already have built them (example: Pageflakes).
The conference shows one thing very clearly: It's much too narrow to think of Office 2.0 as simply "web-based competition for Microsoft Office". Very few of the Office 2.0 companies try to target Microsoft's ubiquitous suite, but rather leverage the specific advantages of web-based applications in other domains. This is a very vibrant space that certainly will hold a few surprises in the near future.