Balsamiq Studios Makes a Case for Web Office Plugins

When we review a new web office/productivity/collaboration application, we tend to focus on the features. To get everything we’re looking for, we tend to have to use many of these applications at the same time.

Giacomo ‘Peldi’ Guilizzoni isn’t convinced this is the direction we should be heading. He’s so sure that smaller, more specialized web office plugins are the way of the future, he left his job as Sr. Engineering Lead for Adobe ConnectNow to start Balsamiq Studios. It’s a startup focused on “adding flavor to web office suites,” launching today.

I spoke with Peldi about his vision for web office plugins and what it all means to the web worker.

WWD: With the record release of Firefox 3 this week, plugin-rich environments are nothing new to the web worker. Yet the web worker, especially the independent ones, still may lean towards separate web services for productivity applications rather than commiting to a platform with plugins. Before we talk about the plugin business model, let’s take a high-level view of “web office” applications right now. What do you see as the biggest challenge to the web worker or small business trying to pick a service?

Peldi: As more knowledge workers understand the power and benefits of Web Office (which includes any productivity application for knowledge workers…wikis, CRM solutions, etc.), more developers, both large and small, are looking to take advantage of the paradigm shift and become the next Microsoft Office. In the last few years, we’ve heard of an increasing number of companies entering this space.

It’s not just features that matter. In fact, the feature set is pretty much expected to be a subset of Office features — hopefully big enough to make the apps usable — with the addition of the collaboration features that come naturally with being a Web Application (versioning, tagging, easy collaboration).

But what matters most to users? Their privacy, the security of their private information and the trust they have in the brand. Would you trust your private data with a company that might not be around next year?

Clearly, heavy consolidation in this space is inevitable.

WWD: Even with one company acquiring another, you would think we’re nearly saturated with these web office applications by now. Do you see a front-runner emerging?

Peldi: I don’t think there will be a single winner, but I doubt there will be more than a handful of victors. As a Web Worker, I will only trust a brand with enough money to hire some of the best security experts around. Furthermore, the company should have a big reputation to maintain and enough capital on hand to survive market fluctuations. I suspect it will take another couple of years before Web Office goes mainstream and consolidation takes place.

Since the stakes are so high, competition to become one of the “Web Office” staples is going to be fierce. One way for a company to compete is to turn its applications into platforms, providing APIs so that third-party developers can extend its offerings.

This is particularly handy right now, since most Web Office tools lack so many of the features of MS Office. Still, it’s part of providing customers with the total product: the more companies surrounding your platform, the faster it improves — and the more people will trust that it’s going to be a winner.

Salesforce has been leading the way with their Force platform (boasting 800+ apps), but others are following suit. Atlassian has had a few companies extending their Confluence wiki for years. Google has a good site, but no way for third-party vendors to charge for their software that I’ve seen. The number of companies focused on delivering Web Office plugins is still tiny, especially if they’re not focused on Salesforce or Google.

I believe that “Web Office Plugins” is a niche that will grow tremendously in the next few years, and that there’s a great deal of space for small and medium vendors to build great add-ons for Web Office products that cater both to the masses and to vertical markets as well.

WWD: Why do you think a shift from thinking about web applications to thinking about platform/plugins is so important to the end user? What’s in it for the developer?

Peldi: As a Web Worker, I want my data to be in one or two places (“my corner of the cloud”, so to speak), both for the privacy and security concerns mentioned above, and for sheer convenience. I am all for new features that make me more productive, but please, just add them to the tools I already use and trust. Don’t ask me to move all of my documents to your new platform just because you offer feature X or Y that is only incrementally better than what comes with my current Web Office suite — because that’s just not going to happen.

Back to the developer point of view, building a plugin is a lot easier, faster and cheaper than building a whole Web Office platform geared toward making that one little innovation shine through.

Building a hosted application might be easy these days with Rails and all, but hosting it and keeping it up all the time is no picnic, and it’s very stressful — just ask Twitter. If a plugin gives its users all of the benefits of Web 2.0 — without the issues inherent to hosting — that plugin will likely end up being hosted within the Web Office suite servers themselves.

WWD: What are your thoughts regarding pricing of these plugin applications?

Peldi: One common misconception is that plugins should be significantly cheaper than the platform they enhance, if not free. I disagree: though this might be the case at first, as Web Office becomes a commodity its price will drop to near zero. Plugins will have to be more expensive than the platforms themselves. Just think of it as applications and Operating Systems: Office and Photoshop cost considerably more than an XP license. The bottom line: how useful is a given plugin to customers, and how much money are they saving by using it?

In addition to Balsamiq’s flagship product, Mockups, Peldi also maintains a list of extensible Web Office suites. As a web worker, are you willing to consolidate the web apps you use around a platform with plugins?