It's now almost two years since Corel surprised the industry - and office suite. Now the NC has arrived, it could actually be keeping it alive. delighted Java supporters - by announcing it was to rewrite PerfectOffice from scratch using Java. Commentators at the time said the day of the office suite was over, that sets of smaller Java applets would run in cross-platform environments, giving us the same functionality in a fraction of the memory.
Two years later, Corel's project is abandoned, Microsoft has shown no inclination to rewrite Office in Java (in fact, it has shown little inclination to write anything in Java) and only Lotus has accepted the challenge.
Lotus has succeeded in recasting SmartSuite as eSuite, but analysts are a long way off a unanimous agreement as to whether this is what the industry needs any more.
'eSuite gives the NC credibility, but I don't think it is architecturally right,' says Rob Hailstone, chief analyst at market researcher Bloor Associates.
'Everyone knows the bottleneck in the network computer environment will be the network. eSuite is a more tolerable way to organise application delivery over a network than traditional suites, but it will still move a substantial chunk of code at one time.'
Bloor has produced several reports that are broadly supportive of Java.
Hailstone thinks Java applications will be popular with companies that haven't adopted large client-server systems. 'Who will your users be in five years and what devices will they attach to the network?' he asks.
'If you take that into account, you build your applications to a lowest common denominator.'
For Hailstone, that means a browser and a Java virtual machine. It doesn't mean building an office suite that echoes the standards of existing office suites, as those devices are as likely to be telephones as traditional desktop computers.
Not surprisingly, Michael Zisman, Lotus executive vice president of strategy, disagrees. 'eSuite as a product has the biggest opportunity on the NC because there's nothing else there at the moment,' he says. 'We accept that on the PC, there are office suites already there and it will be very hard to unseat them. But with eSuite, I honestly believe that in delivering Java applications we are seeing a change to a new paradigm when building applications.'
In contrast with Corel's earlier beliefs, Zisman doesn't believe Lotus' Java office suite could unseat Microsoft. Instead, he says, the biggest opportunity offered by eSuite will be for users who want to use applications in a different way - sending live data over company networks.
When you build a spreadsheet, he says, eSuite makes it possible to send not just a sheet of data but a working numerical model - a mix of data and Java code.
That's a great idea for power users, but perhaps the biggest effect eSuite will have in the market in the immediate future will be through its delivery with IBM's Java NCs, in the same way that Microsoft Office or Lotus SmartSuite is bundled with a standard Windows PC.
'Java came along at the right time for this,' says Zisman. 'We don't have to evangelise it.' But he still doesn't expect eSuite to bring down Microsoft. 'Competing with Microsoft is not fun, believe me,' he says, adding that Microsoft's greatest marketing talent is 'value-shifting' - giving up profits in one part of its business to establish another part, or to beat the competition in another part. For that reason, he doesn't envisage Microsoft standing aside and letting Java applications take over a large proportion of the market.
Derek Ashmore, director of sales at IBM's EMEA NC division, says one of the problems with office suites is version incompatibility - the same standard software falls out of step when implemented across a company. 'That has become a nightmare in large companies. It's annoying and has become a key issue.'
The solution that Microsoft is promoting - the zero administration PC - is flawed, according to Ashmore. Zero administration aims to manage software effectively by imposing central software downloads, so all users can be upgraded simultaneously with the same standard applications. 'It's a terrific idea, but the idea of reloading the software via a download every night at midnight can't be a bright thing to do,' he says.
This is one area in which eSuite, and any other application suite that may come along later, has a definite advantage. The download process won't be a once-a-day software update, it will be a continuous part of the application serving process. But there is another Microsoft idea that looks likely to undermine the Java suite in the short term - the Windows-based terminal (WBT), the thin client that runs Windows CE and connects to the version of Windows NT, nicknamed Hydra, that Microsoft now has in beta.
The WBT is a thin client derivative that will run the existing versions of Office without having to rewrite them in Java. It also avoids the network traffic that Java applets produce, because all the network does is transfer the screen data between the terminal and server. This gives users a solution to the problem of incompatible versions and management issues (the software is installed only on the server) while maintaining the full functionality of existing office suites. The advantage for Microsoft is that it doesn't have to break up Office and rewrite it.
'If you said "network computer" to Bill Gates a year-and-a-half ago, you were in big trouble. But it turns out the concept of the WBT is exactly what everyone wanted,' says Bob Gilbertson, president and chief executive officer of NCD. And Gilbertson should know. NCD doesn't just build its own NCs, it designs and builds IBM's as well - both Java-only - and is soon to build WBTs.
'If Java had been available and the browser interface had worked, the NC could have taken off quite quickly,' adds Gilbertson. 'Because Sun and the first NC manufacturers couldn't deliver, many people decided the network computer was a bad idea.'
Gilbertson has used office applications written in Java and he's not a big fan either. 'Everyone thought the way to tackle implementation across networks would be using Java applications, but Java is another programming language that, like Basic, can be slow to execute. Your hand and eye adjust to the latest PC speeds and Java's response time is not good enough, nor is the language stable enough. You can overcome these defects with power, so there's a potential for Java, but I don't think it will be anywhere near as widespread as people once thought,' he says.
WBT is a serious technology - Microsoft is working with NCD to develop it and Intel has taken a 4.4 per cent stake in NCD. Nevertheless, IBM will still be selling Java-only NCs bundled with eSuite and NCD will be building them.
Market research firm Zona agrees. It calculates the market for thin clients was up 35 per cent in 1997, but that it still only reached 347,917 units. With a total turnover of $350 million, the market is still tiny in IT terms and the applications market that can be built on it is small.
With those figures, it's hardly surprising that Corel decided to junk Java and turn to enhancing its Windows products instead.
Zona's breakdown of the figures offers further bad news for anyone staking their future on rewriting applications in Java. Even before Intel and Microsoft backed the WBT, almost half of all thin client sales used Citrix' Winframe technology, allowing thin clients to run standard Windows applications.
Java-only NCs accounted for a mere 17 per cent of the market. While the desktop architecture may be set for an upheaval, it now looks unlikely that this will bring down Microsoft or even knock it off its perch as the undisputed leader in suite software.
Ironically, the new-look NC may serve to extend the life of the office suite. Lotus eSuite has a function for some users, and as Zisman says, that may turn out to be as a toolkit rather than a traditional set of applications. The developers at Lotus who slaved to recast SmartSuite may be disappointed, but realistically, its only alternative role is to lend credibility to the IBM Java NC.
Java may yet prove to be a revolution, but not necessarily a revolution in suite software.
What happened to Corel Office for Java?
The initial work on the Java suite was rapid - at Comdex Fall in 1996, there was lively interest in the beta version of the software, which was running on the Corel stand. Chris Biber, Corel's product manager for Java, promised the suite would be ready by the end of the first quarter of 1997. At the time, that promise seemed credible.
Although still not fully featured (they left out the spell check, for example), Corel's Java versions of WordPerfect and Quattro Pro were stable, while completing basic office functions. More impressive was the fact that the project was then only three months old. Despite posting the beta software on the Web, the first quarter of 1997 passed without any product release - a relief to the channel, which rightly suspected that Corel's Java Office could be sold by download.
When Corel officially abandoned the Java Office suite last October, few were surprised. 'Microsoft is no longer our competitor, it's our environment,' claimed Dan Sylvester, senior vice president of sales. 'If we're agreed that Microsoft owns 90 per cent of desktops in the world, it's no longer our competitor, it's our environment. It would be fair to say Corel's strategy is co-existence in the Microsoft arena.' The new plan is to implement groupware on the existing platforms in Corel's Enterprise suite. Even Corel Computer, the hardware division of the company that produced its own NC, did it without Java office applets. 'If you look at Corel Office for Java, that is directly related to our Enterprise suite,' Sylvester claimed, 'after a lot of adjustment.' And what of Biber? He also left last October and now works across the road - at a Java developer.
Pros and cons of Java applets for Windows users
Uses fewer resources and less memory. Corel's applications ran in 620Kb, for example.
Can be centrally managed, providing common spell-checking or file locations.
Easy to upgrade and write add-ons for corporate users.
Runs on any browser-capable platform with a common look and feel.
Cons Complete cross-platform compatibility has proved impossible so far.
Java is an interpreted language, which means it is slow to execute.
Running in a browser interface is confusing.
Users lose Windows shortcuts like drag-and-drop. Suites are not as fully featured as Windows equivalents.
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