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Brave New Desktop

July 9, 2006

What’s that rumbling beneath the banner of Web 2.0? It’s the start of a steady mass migration away from the dusty boxes of yesteryear’s software and powerful desktop PCs to feature-rich, anytime, anywhere Web tools on lightweight PCs and mobile devices that are changing the way we think and use applications. Is Writely the Microsoft Word of tomorrow? More people are storing their data—e-mail, media, contacts—in “the cloud,” so why not use a web-based calendar (Kiko), spreadsheet (iRows), productivity suite (Zimbra), or whole GUI (Goowy)? DigitAll talked to the top players in the field, as well as Techcrunch pundit Michael Arrington, to check out the scene and its wide-ranging implications. Are these would-be Office killers ready for prime time—or just hopped up on too much Web 2.0 hooey?

Satish Dharmaraj,

Think of Zimbra as the sweeter suite. Using much of the functionality you’ll find in Microsoft Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird, Zimbra is an open source, open standards bundled application for e-mail, calendar, contacts, and messaging. Reviewers raved about its good looks and zippy performance when it was first released, but now that the cat is out of the bag, bigger competitors are on their way with similarly flashy offerings. (Can you say Microsoft Outlook Live?) But Dharmaraj isn’t scared. Zimbra was first, he is quick to point out, and he has no intention of losing his position at the top of the pole.

// Ten years ago they called this concept the network computer—now the idea has come of age. All the power of the application has shifted to the server. Today we are truly delivering all the power of applications via the browser.
// Everyone recognizes the value of getting out of the desktop software lifecycle. The idea of the transferable desktop is changing the game.
// Our pain point? It’s the cost of support for fat clients that IT departments need to support and the lack of web-based applications rich enough to compete with Outlook. On the server side we’ve been able to provide a framework for anything that has a Web service: CRM, ERP, customer invoices, travel systems, flight trackers, stock trading systems—now they can all talk with other data sources. No more islands of applications, operating separately!
// A suite provides a unitary user experience, regardless of your OS. That’s our primary point of differentiation—our integration: one single place to access all our information.
// Frankly, speed to market is our primary competitive advantage: We’re two to three years ahead of everyone interested in developing a next-generation collaboration platform.
// We recently announced our plans to work on an AJAX-based document framework, We’ve now created a spreadsheet and word processor. Whereas Zimbra looked to provide a Web-based alternative to Outlook, our next frontier is to create and share documents using the browser, rather than fat applications like Office.
// We’re on the cusp of a huge shift in computing models. And the richest applications of all will be Web applications.

Alex Bard
President and CEO,

Not every Web 2.0 code-slinger was born yesterday. Alex Bard and his Goowy team all have deep experience on the Web going back to 1996, when they were pioneering real time chat for Lycos, Geocities and Yahoo! Now fast-forward to Goowy. As the name implies (Goowy is the phonemic spelling of the acronym GUI for Graphical User Interface), Goowy is “a webtop”—your entire PC desktop ported to the Web including your contacts, calendar, e-mail, storage, and games.

// We’ve been a part of the Web’s evolution from the beginning. Now we’re really getting to true collaboration. It’s really exciting.
// The biggest difference now? There are a lot more enabling technologies for building rich Web applications.
// Whether it’s browsers or code, there are still technology challenges. We might not be able to do anything about browsers, but we can always stretch the limitations of code.
// Ultimately, to get where we’re going, we have to keep a close eye on performance. You look to the back-end server to ensure the end user never suffers.
// Lots of companies are focused on a limited band of functionality: just RSS, just calendars, just mail. We think a typical user wants a broader experience: chat, file sharing and storage, webmail, contacts, RSS: the full menu, the whole GUI—a mirror of your desktop functionality.
// Ultimately, we want as many people to use this as possible, so we’re making as interoperable as we can. If you want real impact, that’s what you have to do.
// The big winner is the end user. The $100 laptop dream is on its way. If we can subtract the cost of the OS and of Office, we can provide people with an experience that’ just as powerful as what they have today with rich Web applications.

Michael Arrington

A year ago, Michael Arrington was just another former Silicon Valley lawyer with a history of brokering deals for the likes of Netscape, Apple, and Pixar, and a serious swoon for Internet startups. Today, thanks to his widely read blog,, Arrington is Web 2.0’s leading pundit on the fortunes of myriad companies with too-cute names and dubious revenue models. Fortunately, Arrington, a vet of the last dot-bomb, hasn’t drunk the 2.0 Kool-Aid. He’s a frank reviewer who can easily spot the wannabes from the up-and-comers in the social software revolution, and he’s not afraid to call ’em as he sees ’em.

// The persistent Web is becoming a reality in the first world. Browser advancements will continue to move us forward. AJAX and Flash have already done so much to allow for instant messaging without refreshing—look at Google Chat. All this allows Web applications to better mimic the way desktop applications perform.
// Here’s why people don’t use Writely instead of Word. Yet. Desktop applications are still far more robust and stable. The Web is a young platform. But will a Writely start eating away at the edges of Word’s market? It’s probable.
// I finally switched to a Mac this year because I didn’t need to have any OS-dependent software. I still use Office on my Mac, but for how much longer?
// Tim O’Reilly talks about the “componentized” Web, where each player provides some pieces of an overall whole application. It will be immensely hard for a Microsoft to keep up in that sort of environment.
// There’s an explosion of devices in the home. We must rid ourselves of wires. That much is clear. And when you consider how much of people’s lives are stored in “the cloud” now, it’s even more obvious.
// Support is extremely expensive for traditional desktop applications. It’s a real cost center. With Web applications you don’t need support: you just push out a fix quickly, to everyone. The competitive advantage of many of these outfits has more to do with them being nimble startups than it does with them using the Web platform.
// Web 2.0 applications I’m keeping my eyes on? Riya and Pandora. Riya has been called off-the-shelf facial recognition software. It performs group tagging of your photos using advanced AI. I tagged my entire photo collection in a half hour with Riya, and now it automatically recognizes a photo of my wife when I submit it for processing—and tags it as such.
// Pandora provides a similar form of analysis. It digests the music you like and provides you with relationally similar results, based on elaborate parsing of the music’s characteristics.
// Lots of these applications rely on advertising, and much of that is derived from Google. Which is all fine when the advertising market is healthy. But we have no idea how online advertising will be affected the next time there’s a downturn. The survivors of Web 2.0 have yet to be identified.

Justin Kan
Co-Founder, Kiko

At Kiko, love is a four-letter word: A-J-A-X. Just ask Justin Kan and the creators of calendaring app Kiko. “For us,” says Kan, “everything started with discovering AJAX through Gmail and Google Maps.” Impressed by what they saw, Kiko’s brain trust set out to solve one of personal computing’s big headaches: calendaring. More to the point, how do we get all our calendars to talk and sync to each other? Can’t we all just get along? “Web-based calendar applications really needed a good upgrade, because the existing ones are just too hard to use. Kiko is that overhaul.”

// Customers really want an easy and accessible way to schedule appointments. Kiko allows them to do just that with drag and drop actions. It lets you share a calendar to friends or to the world via its own URL. We’ve even made it easy to move between calendar accounts and created one-click public calendars.
// Our primary differentiator is that we have a really easy-to-use interface.
// Kiko can also compete in many ways other calendars can’t:
e-mail, AIM or other IM clients, RSS and iCal feeds. There is a lot of interoperability.
// Speed is a large part of why we’re successful. We’re able to move really quickly. It’s a small team and we require only one to two weeks to go from idea to release. For example, we had the idea to consume RSS and event database (EDB) feeds, such as, and a week and a half later, we rolled out that feature.
// We’re moving Kiko forward with event-contextual advertising and a premium set of features. Soon, you’ll see other mini-applications start to tie into your calendar, such as tasks.
// The end game for calendars is that we’ll start seeing a lot more push. Preferentially placed ads will be sent to users who are interested in them. It’s easy to imagine this opening up an interesting business model with free calendars for everyone. That’s the path we’re going down now.

Yoah Bar-David
CEO, iRows

Sometimes a great notion springs from a humble idea. For Yoah Bar-David, everything started with the Ür-geek moment of launching
“It was time for the calculator to become a Web app,” explains the Jerusalem-based programmer But Bar-David wasn’t pleased for long. A web-based spreadsheet app seemed like a logical next-step. Why not, say, replace Excel? And so iRows was born in January 2006.

// Our biggest pain point? Catching up! When you take on Excel, you’re taking on a product that has a lot of functionality. I’m a veteran Excel user but I am always finding deeper capabilities that are new to me. So we need to meet the natural user expectation here, because people demand this level of richness. But it’s not easy on the web, and Javascript was not designed for this kind of computation. We are stretching the browser’s limits, and mobile platforms represent another important challenge. There is lots to do!
// We differentiate on our application’s richness. Our niche carries that specific expectation. But this must be balanced against usability and speed of use issues. We can handle big, real-world spreadsheets, plus we have features-dynamic currency conversion, automatic versioning, live stock updates, and collaborative tools-that you can’t even find in Excel.
// You can access iRows from anywhere. You can collaborate. There’s nothing to install, and it’s easy to publish to web pages—and they’re updated automatically, from one source. These are serious advantages to traditional spreadsheets.
// Soon, there will be just two types of computers: one for gaming people, and one for web use. The web one will get almost all its software from the Internet. Like television, it will be a basic device that gets all its data from the network.

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