Paul Stannard is the CEO of SmartDraw.
If you are as old as me, you remember the transition from MS-DOS to Windows in the early 1990s. Dominant applications like Lotus 123 and WordPerfect were quickly knocked from their perches as the ecosystem tectonically shifted before they responded. Microsoft Word and Excel for Windows replaced Lotus and WordPerfect as the undisputed leaders of their respective product categories. Similar transitions occurred elsewhere across the software world.
It was the release of Windows 3.0 in May 1990 that started the revolution, which, in five short years, was to replace the DOS prompt with icons and a mouse in millions of corporate computers worldwide.
Windows 1.0 was released in 1985, but the limit of 640K of application memory combined with slower processors made it just too limited for real applications. So when Windows 3.0 broke the 640K memory barrier, and the Intel 386 processor upped the speed limit, the game was finally on.
The benefits of the Windows UI and the ability to break out of the 640K straightjacket was significant enough to cause widespread adoption of new standards, not only in the operating system and interface, but in the applications that were commonly used at the time.
Might the arrival of new cloud-based apps that run in a web browser and store their data in the cloud create enough of an advantage over the common desktop environment to cause a similar shift? Interestingly, there are quite a few parallels between the arrival of cloud-based apps and the arrival of Windows 30 years ago.
The advantages of cloud-based apps
I only recently began using cloud-based apps. I’m a convert! Once you’ve made the leap you just cannot go back. Why? Because of the incredible convenience of having your app and its data available on any computer or any device at any time. Imagine if the only way to look at your email was to sit down at your desktop computer at work! (It’s easy for me to imagine this because I actually had to do this 15 years ago). Without cloud-based apps, we are in the same boat with documents.
HTML5 brings powerful apps to the browser
If the advantages of cloud-based apps are so compelling, why did it take me so long to start using them? For the same reason, no one used Windows applications before Windows 3.0 — they were crap! Early web apps were mere shadows of the desktop apps they were attempting to replace. There’s a reason Google Docs and Google Sheets were free initially — they didn’t do much compared to Word and Excel.
Over the past year or two this has started to change. Just as Windows 3.0 triggered the shift to Windows in 1990, I believe the widespread adoption and official release of the HTML5 standard in 2014 is triggering a similar revolution today. It is now possible to write apps that run in the browser that are just as powerful as their desktop equivalents. The new browser-based Microsoft Word looks and behaves in a very similar way to the Windows version.
Is it only access to your files that matters?
The early steps to making your documents accessible from any device didn’t involve apps at all. Dropbox offered a solution that synched files across multiple desktop PCs, and subsequently across other devices too. Dropbox is app agnostic. It assumes you already have the app to read the file on the device on which you are working (e.g. save a Word file at work, go home and open the same file with an edition of Word installed on your computer at home).
Microsoft’s approach to updating their Office suite is similar. They offer a comparable product to Dropbox called OneDrive and encourage you to buy a subscription to Office 365 that allows you to install their native apps on multiple computers. The basic Office apps are available for Windows, Mac, iPad and Android. Office also has a cloud-based version that runs in the browser. It’s free, but it omits some of the features of the native apps.
Is file access from any device sufficient to defend the positions of applications that do not actually run in the browser, or is it only half a loaf? Personally, I think it’s half a loaf. Having to rely on your app being installed on the device on which you are currently working is a significant limitation to an “any device anywhere” model. It’s especially true when you want to share a document with someone who doesn’t own or have access to the app required to open the file. Over time I believe the hybrid “cloud data — native app” model will lose to the “cloud data — cloud app” model, as more and more people experience the differences.
Will the adoption of cloud-based apps reshuffle the deck?The movement from the Windows (and Mac) desktop to cloud-based file systems will certainly be just as rapid as the adoption of Windows 25 years ago. Software vendors that don’t provide full-featured browser-based apps that provide at least most of the functionality of their successful desktop apps are at risk of losing their grip on their market.
Microsoft has taken the first step toward defending Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook with OneDrive and Office 365, but their native-platform-centered strategy seems like a limitation to me.
Yet other apps may be up for grabs. Popular graphics apps like Visio and Photoshop have not made the transition. Access and simple file managers haven’t, either.
The transition from the desktop to cloud-based apps offers some exciting opportunities for developers to gain market share at the expense of the previous market leaders — and presents a serious threat to today’s winners to not fall behind.