As the company’s name implies, JotSpot used to provide a fairly simple product: a web-based wiki application running on the web. Now, though, JotSpot is getting more ambitious. It’s transforming its wiki tool into a wiki platform – a Swiss Army Knife of office applications that run inside wiki pages. There’s word processing, spreadsheets, calendars, personal directories, even a photo gallery. JotSpot seems to be pinning its hopes on being a web version of Microsoft Office.
“With the new version of Jotspot,” CEO Joe Kraus tells Dan Farber, “we are bringing the metaphor of wikis to the productivity functions of an office [suite], sharing access, permissions and version control, and letting user[s] organize a site the way the[y] want.” Richard MacManus thinks it’s a good idea: “JotSpot is doing the right thing morphing their wiki application products into office tools, because this is tapping into a growing market for web-based office tools and will also push the boundaries of what office tools can be in the Web Office era.”
I’m not so sure. I agree that more office tools will come to reside on the web, but I’m not convinced that the best way to ensure the success of those tools is to turn them into mini-Offices. For one thing, it muddies what is at the moment the strongest selling point for web services: simplicity. The fact is, community-managed wikis can actually get pretty confusing pretty fast, a fact that JotSpot admits on its blog: “When pages can be created almost anywhere, even the most meticulously gardened wikis can become confusing and hard to navigate, particularly for new users.” Adding in a welter of additional applications raises the complexity quotient significantly, undermining the appeal of the service. A confused user is a non-user.
But the bigger issue is a strategic one: Can mini-Offices survive in an Office world? To see the challenge that a company like JotSpot faces, just listen to how it’s positioning its new suite. “It has some of the familiarity and functionality of Office,” Kraus tells MacManus; “it’s wikis meets Microsoft Office.” On the JotSpot site, the company says its word processor is “just like Microsoft Word.” It says its spreadsheet application “feels just like Microsoft Excel but on the web!” All of which leads to a simple question: Why do I need stuff that’s like Microsoft Office when I already have Office?
JotSpot is, in other words, jumping into a market that is Microsoft’s to lose. As Microsoft continues to expand its own web functionality, adding a web services layer to Office and incorporating wiki functionality as well as other collaboration tools, it will have an enormous advantage. Its web services will be integrated from the get-go with the business world’s default productivity suite, Microsoft Office. It’s going to be awfully hard to compete head-on with Microsoft if your marketing pitch is that your product “has some of the familiarity and functionality of Office.”
JotSpot may end up wishing that it had focused on providing a simple but useful tool that complements Office rather than trying to compete directly with the beast. It’s going to take a heck of a lot more than a wiki metaphor to kill Office.
UPDATE: Richard MacManus suggests, in a response to this post, that JotSpot’s suite is in fact designed to be a complement to Microsoft Office, extending rather than imitating its capabilities. (And he provides a good quote from Joe Kraus along those lines.) Still, in playing around with JotSpot today, it felt to me more like an attempt to mimic Office functionality within a wiki rather than to extend Office functionality into a wiki (I hope that makes sense) – but I may well have missed something. As I wrote about Google Spreadsheets, I think the complement strategy is the way to go in this market, but that becomes harder when you’re positioning your product as a complete suite rather than a narrowly defined but valuable add-on. (I think, for business customers, it will be more compelling to have a wiki embedded in Office than to have Office embedded in a wiki.)
Also, MacManus quotes Joe Wilcox as arguing that Microsoft won’t launch a hosted Web version of Office unless forced to by a viable competitor. I don’t think Microsoft will launch a Web “version” of Office (ie, a replacement for the desktop product) any time soon, but I’m pretty sure it will offer a set of hosted Web tools that form a kind of front-end for the desktop product (and require the purchase of the desktop product to use, or at least use fully). For some time, in other words, Office will be a hybrid, offering (assuming Microsoft pulls it off) rich Web functionality that’s tightly integrated with the traditional program. The ability to provide that integration is the great advantage Microsoft holds right now, and I would expect them to use it aggressively in competing with the Googles and JotSpots of the world.
Microsoft is vulnerable here – very much so – but I think its vulnerability lies in the potential long-run erosion of its ability to make a lot of money from Office, rather than in seeing Office displaced by a direct competitor. I largely agree with Dennis Howlett’s contention that many of the big traditional IT suppliers “will be rendered irrelevant in their current form” – even if he doesn’t think I agree with him.