As Work Habits Change, Software Makers Rush to Innovate

July 30, 2013

As Work Habits Change, Software Makers Rush to Innovate


Every day, millions of office workers prepare memos and reports using scissors and paste, and store data on floppy disks, though they have plenty of digital memory in their computers and the cloud. Smartphone-toting executives have their mail dumped into in-boxes, one corporate message atop another.

They are not using these objects, of course, but clicking on the pictures of them in popular word-processing programs like Microsoft Word or Google Docs. The icons linger like vestigial organs of an old-style office, 31 years after I.B.M.’s personal computer brought work into the software age. They symbolize an old style of office software, built for the time when the desktop computer was new and unfamiliar.But no longer are workers tethered to a desk, or even to an office; we are all toting around laptops, tablets and smartphones to make every place a workplace. And so office software is changing. These days, what is important is collaboration, small screens, fast turnarounds, social media and, most of all, mobility.

“The way people use things is fundamentally changing,” said Bret Taylor, chief executive of Quip, a start-up offering document-writing software that focuses more on mobile than desktop work.

Mr. Taylor, 33, is one of the best-regarded young software engineers in Silicon Valley. He helped create Google Maps before serving as Facebook’s chief technical officer. His co-founder, Kevin Gibbs, also 33, helped create Google’s data centers and as a side project developed the software that suggests completions when people start to type questions into Google search.

Their company is one of several that are developing office software for the mobile world. Some of the new programs still borrow from images of old-fashioned work in their design. But the capabilities they offer are decidedly up-to-date.

Last month Box, an online service for storing documents, pictures and other data, bought Crocdoc, a company that makes it possible to view Microsoft Word documents and other popular file formats across a variety of devices at the right size for whatever screen is being used at the time. Evernote, another online storage outfit, allows people to write, edit and share notes together, instead of e-mailing multiple versions of a Word document to one another.

Sam Schillace, Box’s vice president for engineering, wrote the original program that became Google Docs, which was introduced only six years ago.

He explained that in a mobile world, where everyone is in nearly constant contact, speed and ease of use are more important than lots of font choices. “We were guilty of taking the existing nature of documents,” he said, “but six years ago connectivity was a question. Now everything is connected all the time.”

Both Microsoft and Google are scrambling to make their products reflect a work environment where PCs exist alongside other devices. There is a mobile version of Microsoft Office, which includes Microsoft Word, but it can only be used to edit certain kinds of documents and collaboration is limited. One reason for this, the company says, is that it does not want to force its user base to relearn too much, too quickly.

“We have one billion users of Office,” said Julia White, general manager of Office marketing. “You can’t expect them to change every day.”

Still, social media touches, such as “liking” an e-mail to show you’ve read it instead of writing a response, are likely to be seen in the future, she said.

Quip’s product is for now available only for Apple’s mobile devices and laptops. It combines instant messaging with document creation, storage and sharing in a primarily touch-screen environment.

Tap an icon of a manila folder and the material inside appears, which any user can organize as they see fit. Tapping one of those documents brings it up to be written, edited or commented on.

Like on Facebook, people’s pictures appear alongside their comments. The pictures also appear on any folder or document a person has open, making it easy to start working with someone else.

An important part of mobile design is fewer choices: keyboard commands are often favored over icons to preserve screen real estate for the text. In Quip, pictures and tables are referenced by touching the “@” key on a pop-up screen keyboard, a nod to Twitter’s way of linking people together.

While Microsoft Word, by far the most popular word-processing software, offers more than 200 fonts, and Google Docs has 600, Quip has two fonts. Lists can be made in just three ways: numbered, with check boxes or as bullet points.

Headings come in small, medium or large, instead of the broad range of font sizes presented by Word. “It’s a freedom from choice, so you can focus on what you want to do,” Mr. Gibbs said. “A choice we made was to make it look good on any device.”

That is a convenient argument, but it also reflects the realities of making things work on small, touch-based screens, and the needs of the virtual office.

“Writing and editing has always been somewhat collaborative, but things are moving much faster now,” said Matthias Crawford, a researcher in human-computer interactions at Stanford University. “We are moving from persuasion based on rhetoric to persuasion based on tables and videos inserted into narrative text.”

Google Docs, now part of Drive, Google’s online storage service, is going through a number of revisions to work better on mobile platforms, said Jonathan Rochelle, the product manager for Google Docs.

It has always been possible to collaborate online and bring instant messaging into the process, he said, “but the challenge is trying to do it all.” Once a lot of workers in a corporation use a certain kind of software, he explained, they get used to its features, like fonts and icons, making it hard to remove what is familiar.

The giants of word processing have the talent and money to try to adapt to these expectations. Google does not give figures on its income from Docs, but people familiar with the business say the corporate version of Google Apps, which features Docs, brings in more than $1 billion annually. Microsoft’s business software division had revenue of $24.7 billion in its 2013 fiscal year. Quip gives away a personal version of its software for free and sells a corporate version, which allows more managerial control, for $12 a person each month.

More important, Mr. Crawford of Stanford said, the anachronistic icons of Word and Docs and even Quip have themselves become a comforting standard to many. “Until business structures change, nothing is going to happen” to Microsoft Word, he said. “There is always recourse to showing physical things.”

Mr. Taylor of Quip says his software reflects changes that have already happened in the world. “Seeing who is working on what, chatting with them or deciding to collaborate, that is what we have here,” he said, nodding to Quip’s open-plan office. “Workplaces are changing, so expectations are changing.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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