Earlier today, Apple announced they were starting a beta service of iWork applications online, free for anyone (with a licensed copy of iWork '09) to try, called iWork.com. The premise is this: You make a document in, say, Pages, and then click a button to put it online. You let your editor/friend know the document is online, and then he or she can login to the iWork website, view the document as you created it, and put sticky notes on it. This way, the editor/friend doesn't have to have a certain application (like Word) on his or her computer to view or make notes on your document.
Apple's not the first to have a product like this—Google has had its 'Docs' suite of online writing/sharing applications for a couple years already (it's free and it also lets everyone work on the document together)—but they have the opportunity to win the Online Office Suite battle, which has barely begun.
The key, in my opinion, is for Apple to not only move the whole suite online, but also hit a home run with the user interface, the speed, and the cost of their iWork.com suite. If they can make an online app look like an App running on my Mac, with anything near the speed of the actual app, and make it happen for a low monthly or yearly fee (heck, make it part of MobileMe!), I would be seriously interested. Check out
280Slides.com [Note: 280Slides.com is no longer in service], to get an idea of what I'm suggesting Apple should go for. This website has created a beast of an online application, that, in my mind, beats the pants off the desktop version of Microsoft PowerPoint.
As long as you have a relatively fast and stable Internet connection, you can use web apps like 280Slides, Google Docs, and (the future) iWorks.com to not only collaborate with others, but also work on your own documents on different computers without having to worry about putting them on a flash drive, emailing them to yourself, or using some other form of shared storage.
Importance of the Interface
In my opinion, a company like Apple has a major head start on Google—even though they're over two years late to the party. Any user of MobileMe (formerly .Mac) will testify to the fact that using MobileMe is a great online experience; It functions almost exactly like the desktop versions of Mail, Address Book, iPhoto, etc. Apple really gets interface design—the positioning and 'clickability' of buttons, the colors and layout of an application's interface, etc. The iPhone is a great testament to Apple's understanding of how people interact with computer interfaces.
Google's Docs suite looks stark and boring compared to the demos I've seen of iWork so far, and looks absolutely banal compared to 280Slides.com. Even if Google's online suite is faster, more flexible, and more 'free' than iWork or other similar apps, non-tech-savvy people will not use it without a solid, easy-to-approach interface.
I think a comparison between the Palm OS (of the past decade) and the iPhone OS is analogous to a Google vs. Apple online app comparison. Palm's OS is lean and mean, uses little battery life, and has tons of great features... but nobody has ever loved using it. On the other hand, you have the iPhone, which uses special effects and transitions for everything from opening an application to scrolling down a web page. Every person I know who has used an iPhone has, to a greater or lesser extent, fallen in love with the interface.
Google Docs, at this point, seems like Palm OS of online apps, while Apple's iWork.com suite has the potential to become the 'lovable' online office suite.
There are many problems that cause people to be suspicious of using online apps: security concerns, slowness of certain elements of the interface, and the constraint of the app running within a browser window, to name a few. But I would say the number one problem with web apps (and this problem is not limited to just one company) is the problem of always-on Internet connectivity.
I simply don't believe homes in the United States (and around the world) have the reliability and speed in their Internet connections that's required to produce enough confidence in web apps for people to store all their important work online. I can count on one hand the amount of times I was forced to restart my Mac in the past three years. It would take something like two hundred hands to count the number of times my Internet connection has either gone down or slowed to the point of frustration.
Even if you have a rock solid connection, you have to worry about where your files are being stored, and whether they're being combed for information or not. I would presume that Google does some sort of crawling of the data their users save, and uses that for ad targeting. But privacy concerns usually take a backseat to convenience, and that's why I think Internet connection speed and reliability are the two main hiccups in the race to online app adoption.
On to the Future
I think Apple's planning to use the beta testing of iWork.com to move more functionality into their online apps. Looking forward, Microsoft isn't resting on its laurels, either—they're working on moving Office to 'the cloud' as well. But who will be the big players in this arena? Apple? Google? Microsoft? Or maybe someone else...? The games have just begun, and there will be many years before the victor is declared.
What's your opinion on online applications? Do you know of any other incredible online apps worth mentioning? Let me know in the comments!