Under the Radar – Office 2.0 wrap-up
As I mentioned, several of my co-workers and I attended the latest Under the Radar Conference, on Office 2.0. It was an interesting day — much more successful, in my opinion, that the eponymous Office 2.0 conference that I attended in the fall. Office 2.0 was comprised almost exclusively of panel discussions, which as we've seen from recent SxSW feedback is a difficult format to make useful.
UTR, on the other hand, was structured in this way: each session contained 14-minute presentations by four companies in a very similar market. Each presentation was a 6 minute demo followed by eight minutes of questions from a three-judge panel. At the end of the four presentations the moderator and the judges discussed the product-space in general, using the demos as context. This resulted in a much more concrete and concentrated discussion than any of the hour-long panels that I heard at Office 2.0. The judges responded directly (and aggressively) to the demos, they made generally incisive comments, and then wrapped up with useful thoughts on the market in-general.
There were two tracks going, so I was only able to see half of the demos. But I'll give you my thoughts on what I did see.
Session One: Calendar apps
Most of these applications that attempted to bring multiple, isolated calendars (work vs. home, company vs. company, online vs. offline) into one place.
Calgoo aggregates all your different calendars and dump them into one Google Calendar. Tungle is a peer-to-peer meeting scheduler: attempting to replicate Exchange’s killer feature across firewalls. Scrybe is trying to build a new web-based calendar that works both online and offline. Scrybe does have some interesting UI innovations: the calendar grid resizes yourself as you navigate — you get more space to read the day your looking focuses on without clicking through to a day-view. However, I don’t know whether the constant re-sizing would be more annoying than useful.
The judges complained loudly about the fact that each of the apps (except Scrybe) required a download to work. One judge, in particularly, made this point repeatedly and dismissively, saying “I wouldn’t invest in anything that requires a download.”
This really started to infuriate me. Listening to similar panels at Office 2.0, I heard countless people say “Work with my existing tools” (read: Outlook) and “Don’t make me change the way I work.” But these judges blew off three apps that did exactly that — by making Outlook less isolated and more net-native — for no better reason than that it required a download.
Microsoft has a near-monopoly with Outlook and Exchange. If any of these calendar products hopes to succeed, they must work with Outlook. And the only way to do anything with Outlook is through installed software. Even then, MS doesn’t make it easy. It sucks, but that’s the way the world is. We let it happen and now we’re paying for it with a failure of standardization and a lack of innovation.
One of the presenters asked the question, “I can send an email to anyone in the world, no matter what email software or backend they use. Why doesn’t Calendaring work as well as email? And who is going to solve that problem? Small startups or the entrenched powers?” Unfortunately, the judges blew this question off, but it is the crucial one. Calendaring should be universal.
If we ever expect the situation to get better, someone has to find a way to wrest control of calendaring away from Exchange. I think the best shot at doing that is by riding on top of Outlook, in the same way the browser fought the Windows monopoly by riding on top of the OS. And that means downloaded software. If you don’t like it, go talk to Microsoft.
Session Two: Wikis
The second session saw presentations from four wiki companies. Two I had seen before (Blogtronix and System One), and two were new (BrainKeeper and FireStoker). Six minutes is a pretty short demo, so it was hard to pull out much to really distinguish one offering from another.
System One had a terrific UI, and some fairly advanced features. It also demonstrated the interesting idea of using the wiki to develop content explicitly for publishing to other tools. You could write SystemOne plugins that would, for example, allow you to publish a wiki document to Word Press blog in one click. It’s an efficient, lightweight approach to wiki-as-CMS.
BrainKeeper seems to have a solid product, but I think they need to simplify the message and the UI. There’s too much going on visually, in both the website and in the product for me to really get a handle on what they have to offer. Blogtronix seems to have made good progress since I saw them at Office 2.0. They, also, are trying to combine a whole bunch of features in one product.
Both System One and Blogtronix made explicit pitches about incorporating the social network in their products, which I think is a smart direction to go. It’s going to be an increasingly important feature in many different applications. I’ll hope to have more to say about that later.
One gratifying note: in this panel, the moderator asked the judges about wikis, “Are there enterprises that don’t need tools like this?” He answered, “No.” Though he went on that say that, “There are many who may never recognize it.”
Atlassian and Jive were the Graduate Circle presenters for this session. Jeffrey from Atlassian went first, and gave a short talk on some of our core values. It was very different from what everyone else did and it attacked some conventional wisdom common at a conference like this. It was refreshing and well received, I think. I wish I had recorded it. Jive did a short demo of Clearspace, but no real new information there.
Session Three: Spreadsheets
The third session consisted of four online spreadsheet companies. EditGrid was the stand-out winner here. An in-browser, best-80% Excel replacement with simultaneous real-time editing, version history, and charts. It’s got a terrific UI — they’ve managed to make a better-looking Excel. As I was watching the demo, I thought, “if Excel actually looked like this, I might actually use it.”
SmartSheet also had an excellent UI and a good demo, though it’s not something I’d likely use. Despite it’s spreadsheet origins, it seems to be a fairly powerful dynamic database application, like DabbleDB. But more than DabbleDB, SmartSheet seems to suffer from the “everything looks like a spreadsheet” problem. Some of the power gets lost in that metaphor.
I also briefly met the DabbleDB guys, who were also in the Graduate Circle. They’ve definitely got an awesome product. Their demo is incredibly powerful. But I still think that they (and too many similar companies) are making a mistake of betting their future entirely on a hosted model and seem to have no plans for installed or embedded versions. There are plenty of companies that would pay now for those capabilities behind the firewall or inside larger application suites. The SaaS promised-land is coming, but only slowly. Those other channels need to be addressed.
Session Four: Social Bookmarking
The fourth session contained four social-bookmarking companies. The only real stand-out here was Stikkit, who introduced Sandy, their new email assistant. It made for a killer demo. Stikkit was already pretty cool tech, and this takes all of the goodness from Stikkit and layers it on top of the apps you already use: email, your calendar, your todo list and your address book. (IM and SMS work too, apparently.) This is one of the few apps from the show I might actually use in my day to day work.
- Almost every single one of these companies needs to hire a graphic designer. I have never seen a poorer collection of logos and slide decks. And they should do so soon, before they get locked down to an identity they have invested in too much to change.
- InvisibleCRM (not a calendar product) also presented in the first session. They have a kind of ‘glue’ product that lets you manipulate large-system-CRM data from Outlook. Not an area that I have much expertise in, but it looks like a feature that every CRM vendor would want to have. They could develop partnerships such that the big guys sell InvisibleCRM as an add-on, or they could get acquired by one of the players to add the Outlook-integration feature. (As one of judges said, their website is not clear at all, but the demo was much better.)
- Unfortunately, I missed the WuFoo demo. I think those guys have a killer product and I was interested to find out what they’ve been up to since Office 2.0. Alas, I couldn’t be in two places at once.
- Joyent announced the Slingshot offline Rails framework, which looks jaw-droppingly cool. If it really works, and if they make it widely available, it could hugely accelerate Rails adoption. Having easy, offline sync and OS drag-and-drop integration would change what’s possible. And it could give Rails apps a big leg up on the kinds of problems that Office 2.0 needs to solve.
- The food was at Microsoft was surprisingly good. : )