Small Office 2.0 vendors fight Microsoft, Google

Office 2.0 alliance sets standards in a bid to lure Microsoft Office users

A nascent alliance of "Office 2.0" vendors Wednesday proposed a set of Web programming standards for interoperability in a bid to attract Microsoft Office users and fend off larger competitors with suite ambitions such as Googlenc.

By adhering to a set of technical guidelines for creating AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) "mashups," firms creating online word processors, spreadsheets, contact managers and other similar applications will be able to offer a single log-in process, easy file sharing and rich and accurate copying and pasting of data. All of those functions would work among multiple services, according to executives at iNetOffice and ShareMethods, the two firms behind Wednesday's move.

"We want to avoid having lots of applications that are islands unto themselves," said Eric Hoffert, CEO of ShareMethods, an online provider of document management and collaboration services.

The announcement and demonstration coincides with the Office 2.0 conference being held in San Francisco Wednesday and Thursday.

Today, there are more than 100 Office 2.0 services hosted on the Internet. The services are inexpensive or free for now and claim to replicate most of the essential features of an Office component -- whether it be Word, Excel, PowerPoint or something else -- while adding the ability for multiple users to edit a document at the same time. That feature that has historically been cumbersome or expensive to deploy in Microsoft Office.

But none of the services yet offers the breadth of Microsoft's Office suite -- not even Google, which announced Wednesday that it is combining its online word processor and spreadsheet onto a single platform.

That means users who want to transfer data or documents would sometimes have to log-in to multiple services and download and then re-upload a file -- running the risk that the file might not even open up properly.

That inconvenience can be streamlined if Office 2.0 services follow the 15 proposed guidelines for Simple Ajax Mashups (SAM), said Tom Snyder, president of Kirkland, Wa.-based iNetOffice. "Every time you've eliminated one or two clicks, you've made someone more productive," he said.

SAM combines several existing open standards, including WebDAV (Web Document Authoring and Versioning), SSO (single sign-on) and ALE (AJAX Linking and Embedding).

One firm that is already retooling its online application to adhere to the SAM standards is Taliferro, a provider of what it calls online activity management software. "We want to offer the same things that all of the big companies offer," said Ty Showers, principal software architect at Taliferro. "It's not going to be hard to implement, if you're used to building AJAX applications."

Snyder said other Web 2.0 vendors have already indicated that they will support SAM, including online collaboration application vendor Zimbra; Structured Data, the creator of online presentation maker Thumbstacks; online database maker Caspio; and collaboration software maker Joyent Inc.

"These are mostly small players," said David Coleman, an analyst at San Francisco-based Collaborative Strategies. "But through mashups, which are easy and inexpensive to put together, they can gain a wider breadth."

Services that share customers will split revenues -- most likely subscription fees -- on an as-yet undetermined basis. "He who has the most partners wins," Coleman said.

For now, SAM doesn't spell out a single file format. Nor would it allow users to store files in multiple online repositories. Snyder also acknowledged that some Office 2.0 vendors are already trying to make themselves interoperable with Google, whose resources make it the de facto leader in the market.

It's not an either/or choice, he said. "Just because you're compliant with Google's API doesn't preclude you from writing to SAM, either."

The ultimate competitor for all Office 2.0 services is Microsoft, which claims 400 million users for Office and is developing its own Office Live services to complement it.

Tim O'Brien, director of the platform strategy group at Microsoft, said wholly switching off of Office "is not the answer. The joke is that with Office, people only use 10 percent of its features. The thing is, everyone uses a different 10 percent."

Asked whether Microsoft would consider complying with third-party technical standards such as SAM, O'Brien said, "Microsoft is interested in any scenario that can do away with walled gardens."

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