I was going back and forth whether I should write about this, but I wanted to see what everyone’s thoughts were on this. I posted on Twitter a week ago about news of OpenOffice.org working on a ribbon-like design for an upcoming version of their office suite. When I saw the news on an official Sun blog I was rather disappointed, which is why I wasn’t even going to mention it here on the site.
On Twitter people were responding to me with similar feelings, but for different reasons. A lot of what I heard from others was in regards to how people hate the ribbon design in Microsoft Office 2007. Obviously anytime you’re dealing with a new interface it will take some getting used to, but personally I love the ribbon in Office 2007. It’s exposed me to features I probably wouldn’t have found otherwise, and people I dealt with who had previously struggled with using Microsoft Office seemingly found their way around much better. So I think Microsoft is on the right track.
Why then am I disappointed that OpenOffice.org could be moving to a similar design? Lack of innovation. Anyone can copy the features, functionality, and design of another application. You have to think outside the box if you want to set yourself apart though. Think about Firefox. They didn’t get to where they are today by “playing catchup” to IE6… they innovated. They came up with a browser that could be slim and simple, or unbelievably powerful with the use of extensions. Mozilla looked at the direction the browser market was heading instead of watching the direction their competitor was heading. As a result they made the market leader trying to play catchup with them (in terms of functionality).
So what should OpenOffice.org do to innovate? Well, the first thing I think they need to address are the reasons users and companies are afraid to adopt their software. They need to make sure that their software is able to save the common file formats (DOC, XLS, etc…) exactly the same way that Microsoft does. I should be able to flip back and forth between the two office suites without ever having to worry whether something is going to get messed up in the transition. Right now, however, it’s like playing a game of “telephone”… you never know if what’s going to come out on the other end is what you actually said. That’s a risk people don’t want to take when it comes to sending stuff to friends, family, coworkers, and clients.
Once they’ve got all that ironed out I think that’s when they need to move on to innovative stuff. Things are moving to the cloud, and that’s something I think they need to start embracing. Integrate with online editors like Google Docs and Zoho, or let users save/open files on sites like Box.net or maybe even to a personal FTP account. Sure there are add-ons for OpenOffice.org that do stuff like this, but it should be so tightly integrated into the office suite that I forget I’m even dealing with the cloud. For example, if I try to save a file to Google Docs while I’m offline I don’t want it to give me the usual yada yada about not being connected to the Internet. All I should see is a little sliding window in the corner (requiring no interaction) notifying me that this happened, and that once I am connected to the Internet again it will just go ahead and automatically save it. Don’t make me remember to save it again when I already told you I wanted to do it.
So those are my thoughts. When I saw this blog post by Sun I felt like I lost a little respect for them, and it’s not often that I feel that way with an open source project. It also solidified in my mind why it’s going to be so hard for them to get any kind of mass adoption.