By Kenneth Wong
Fig 1. Microsoft Office 2010, now in technical preview, will feature Web-hosted versions of its popular business applications like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
This month, on the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic moon-landing mission in 1969, Microsoft launched something into the cloud. At its Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference 2009, the company released the technical preview code of Microsoft Office 2010 to select testers (for Microsoft, that amounts to tens of thousands). Perhaps one of the most remarkable features in the upcoming version is its wholehearted adoption of Web-hosted computing paradigm, in the form of “lightweight Web browser versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote.” The new approach is, according to Stephen Elop, president of the Microsoft business division, “designed to deliver the best experience across the PC, mobile phone, and browser.”
With Office 2010, Microsoft says you can “store your documents online, then access and edit Word 2010 from practically any Web browser” or “work more effectively with multiple people by simultaneously editing Excel files over the Web.” The preview video clips show Office applications like Word and Excel sporting social-media elements. They will, for instance, let you find out if your friends’ and colleagues are online and open instant chat sessions to work together on the same Web-hosted documents.
If Office 2010 succeeds in making Web-based computing an ordinary part of working life, on-demand software providers like Arena Solutions, Aftercad Online, and VisualTao could soon enjoy an adoption boost.
The Web is the Hub
Chris Capossela, senior vice president of Microsoft’s information worker product management, revealed in a Q&A that the development of Office 2010 was guided largely by the five-page memo from Microsoft’s chief software architect Ray Ozzie.
In the memo, Ozzie wrote, “The Web is the Hub of our social mesh and our device mesh … Elements of this social mesh will be a first-class attribute of most all software and service experiences, as the ‘personal’ of the PC meets the ‘inter-personal’ of the Web.”
Fig 2. Arena Solutions’ browser-based BOM and change order management modules represent the software-as-a-service movement in CAD.
He advocated a software infrastructure that would accommodate connected devices, connected entertainment, connected productivity, connected business, and connected development. “We will extend the benefits of high-scale cloud-based infrastructure and services to enterprises, in a way that gives them choice and flexibility in intermixing on-premises deployment, partner hosting, or cloud-based service delivery,” he wrote.
Floating Product Data in the Cloud
In April 2000, while Microsoft and other business software giants like Oracle and SAP were still tiptoeing around the Web-hosted model, Alibre Software ventured into the new territory with the introduction of Alibre Design 1.0 under the Application Service Provider (ASP) model. With this model, you, the subscriber, paid about $100 per month to use the software, enabled via a client-server setup. The company eventually withdrew the ASP version, replacing it with the traditional shrink-wrapped software. Though hampered in part by bandwidth limitations at the time, Alibre’s short-lived experiment paved the way for others.
Nine years after Alibre’s foray into ASP, large bandwidth connections have become common place, but 3D CAD modeling still remains a desktop operation for the most part. By contrast, product-data management, change-order management, and other manufacturing-related tasks have found a place on the Web, in the on-demand software market.
The best known among them is Arena Solutions (the subject of the Video Edition for this week), which previously marketed its modules as Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) solutions, but now calls them bill of materials (BOM) and change order management system. True to its Software as a Service (SaaS) principle, the company makes its software available strictly via a Web browser. With an established track record of system reliability (99.99% scheduled uptime in the past 12 months), the company defies critics who often cite unpredictability as a risk associated with Web-hosted solutions.
Fig 3. AfterCAD Online offers browser-based viewing and markup tools for as little as $39.95 per user per month.
Others like AfterCAD Online and VisualTao, both relative newcomers (the former was founded in 1999, the latter in 2007), offer Web-based viewing and markup features for CAD users. Both cater to the collaboration market, allowing people to exchange and annotate design files created in different CAD programs from a standard browser window. In the case of VisualTao, more than one user can work on the same document online in a collaboration session.
Perhaps the most appealing feature of Web-hosted software is its pricing. The use of shared backend data warehousing and processing setups let SaaS vendors offer their products at a more competitive price than traditional software vendors. Arena Solutions sells its solutions for roughly $100 per user per month. AfterCAD Online subscription starts at $39.95 per user per month. VisualTao, currently in beta, has not yet published its price.
Microsoft plans to deliver a beta version of Office 2010 later this year. Consumers are expected to be able to access the Web-based versions of Office applications for free through Microsoft’s Windows Live portal.
Kenneth Wong writes about technology, its innovative use, and its implications. He has written for Computer Graphics World, Cadalyst, Game Developer, and Manufacturing Business Technology. You can reach him at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter at KennethWongCAD, or send e-mail about this report to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.