We have today a kind of interesting counterpoint between online value and online risk, and also a demonstration that Orwell was right in his famous trio of seeming contradictions. Sony’s PlayStation network has been hacked and considerable information stolen, and Microsoft and Google are battling over just who has the best online document tools.
Personal productivity tools are among the easiest things to cloudsource because their data integration with other apps is generally explicit. You produce documents or spreadsheets and you then send them to somebody. If the production process works well, then the whole process works. Which is where the Microsoft/Google battle comes in. Microsoft put up a comparison between its Office 365 cloud implementation and Google’s Docs, focusing on a Word file and how it’s rendered by the two. Not surprisingly, given that Microsoft picked the document, it shows significant formatting differences. All docs, apparently, are not equal.
But that’s not the issue, of course. Word and the other Office tools contain myriads of features that virtually nobody uses, and furthermore even differences in how commonly used features worked might easily be overcome if you simply adapted your work as you developed the document. It might not translate perfectly to a real version of Word, but if the goal is to support online editing at low/zero cost, that’s not a problem either.
Here’s the dope as I see it. I’ve personally tested Google’s offerings and other Office alternatives (OpenOffice, AbiWord, etc.) and what I’ve found is that none of the Word alternatives worked consistently even with my own documents. Worse, the PowerPoint alternatives had even more significant flaws such that virtually every presentation had serious formatting errors. Spreadsheets were very inconsistent too, with some alternative packages working most of the time and some working none of the time.
But does this mean that cloud productivity tools are doomed? Hardly. The collateral truth in my tests is that unless you have a library of stuff that you’re expecting to suddenly move to the cloud productivity world, or unless you have to exchange files with Office users across a broad spectrum of companies, you can develop all sorts of documents that won’t give you a whit of trouble. Office-to-cloud has issues; cloud-to-Office has few issues. That means that it would be easy for someone just starting with productivity tools to never go to Office to begin with, and likewise easy for somebody with very basic Office use to migrate to Google’s approach. I think that’s really Google’s goal to begin with; you’ll have a hard time justifying a shift away from Office for a power user, so focus instead on the legion of casual users whose Office software costs just as much and who’s return on that investment is minimal.
But now Sony enters the picture. Anything you put online, even when you play a game, can be stolen (Amazon already proved that it could break). Are the confidential plans, the sales contact lists, the customer data spreadsheets, that you transfer into the cloud safe from hacking? You could argue that even your own facilities can be hacked (or simply stolen along with a laptop), but a cloud or a big gaming network is a lot more tempting a target. If somebody hacks a cloud productivity service and gains access to all the data, do we end up with the corporate equivalent of WikiLeaks?
If online productivity tools are good enough, multi-vendor networks never can be—at least according to an event Cisco is pushing today. The company is taking a tack that any market-share leader pretty much has to take, which is that buying any gear from another player contaminates your infrastructure. My surveys have shown that any time there’s a clear market leader in a tech product space, buyers get antsy about being held captive to that vendor and try to introduce other vendors to “keep them honest”. That essentially erodes the value of incumbency, and that’s why a “multi-vendor-is-bad-news” story is logical if you’re the erode-ee.
A more interesting rumor relative to Cisco is that the company is pushing another SMB initiative, this one aimed at creating a retail presence in the SMB product space. HP, once-partner-and-now-arch-enemy, has shelf-space dominance over Cisco. While Cisco has been shifting its home/retail products from its Linksys brand to its own brand, it’s still not pushing a full line of SMB equipment through the storefronts. HP has done more there, simply because of its computing gear. Worse, HP is said to be readying its own push for retail networking products to leverage its brand.
That brings back yet another angle to Cisco’s “multi-vendor-is-bad” story. If you are forced to sell edge switches of ten or twenty or fifty ports on retail shelves, you’re admitting to loss of differentiation on everything but price—at least in that space. What do you then do to prevent erosion to your brand, to keep the “cancer” of multi-vendor from spreading out from the edge and into your bigger enterprise networks? Cisco cannot surrender the retail network market because it’s going to end up being most of the SMB network market, all of the consumer market, and an increasing chunk of the enterprise market.
Ok, so this is logical. The question is whether it will work, and there is absolutely no survey evidence that it will. I’ve never found an enterprise buyer who thought that a “don’t buy multi-vendor” was anything but a cynical ploy, even some who had single-vendor networks. Weak strategy, poor prospects of success…it all adds up to an action taken under pressure, and that’s bad for Cisco.