Sabeer Bhatia is a co-founder of Hotmail. He and Jack Smith created the wildly popular web site that offers free e-mail to everyone. In fact, Hotmail was the first site to offer free e-mail and was one of the first to offer any free web-based services. It was also the first e-mail service to run in a standard web browser. Prior to Hotmail, everyone needed a separate e-mail program to read and write e-mail messages.
In the days before Hotmail, you had to pay for nearly everything you accessed online, including any e-mail service. At the time, everyone else wondered how a web site that gave away its primary product free of charge would ever succeed. The site certainly did succeed for Sabeer Bhatia and his partner: they sold the site to Microsoft for $400 million. Not bad for a free site! Now Mr. Bhatia wants to do it all over again.
Sabeer Bhatia has now released a free online rival to Microsoft Office 2007, the suite of applications that includes Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
Instant Collaboration Software Technologies (InstaColl), Bhatia's new company, offers the same functionality as the Microsoft products with two major differences: (1.) the new product is available free of charge and (2.) it is an online application. The new product is called “Live Documents” and will allow users to create, view, share, and edit documents from any computer, including Windows, Macintosh, and Linux systems. The new applications reportedly are as powerful as the Microsoft equivalents.
The Indian-born Stanford graduate said that Live Documents would pose a “significant” challenge to Microsoft’s propriety software business, which eventually would be made redundant by the evolving Internet applications industry. Microsoft Office accounted for a third of Microsoft’s total revenues last year and is expected to produce more than $20 billion revenue this year. Mr. Bhatia wants to drive that number to zero.
“I believe Live Documents does what Hotmail did for e-mail,” he said. He also predicted, “By 2010, people will not be buying software. This is a significant challenge to a proportion of Microsoft’s revenues.”
Live Documents is one of the exploding new "Web 2.0" applications. It runs in a web browser, and the company's web servers handle all processing power. As users create documents, they can store them on the web servers or on the user's local computer or both.
The advantages of server-based software are many. For instance, there is no software to install or maintain on your own computer, nor is there ever any reason to install software updates. The latest version is always available to everyone. In addition, backups of the documents stored on the web server are made without any involvement by users.
Another Live Documents capability is not easily available in Microsoft Office: the user may grant access to friends, family, or co-workers. Each document may be kept private, shared with one or perhaps a few people, or made public to everyone. Access might be either read-only or the original aurthor may grant full read/write permission.
An online office suite is a great method of collaborating on projects. Are you writing a book or a paper and want your co-author or editor to read it and possibly make changes? Another use would let college students “pass in” papers electronically; the professor can read the papers, mark them up, and then return them, even if the two people are separated by thousands of miles. All this is done easily without any clumsy file transfers or e-mail messages with attached files. The company claims that almost 3,000 people can collaborate together on a single document on a real-time basis.
An online office suite allows quick and easy document sharing, even by people who possess minimal computer expertise. The original author is always in control of who may access the documents he or she creates.
Sabeer Bhatia said, “Our first step was to take email on to the browser. Now, we have done the same with Office. All aspects of computing will now be done in the sky – it’s called Cloud computing.”
Besides accessing Live Documents online, the user also has the option of running a client version of this application on their own computer. This optional download “wraps around” Microsoft Office, converting the static, standalone Office applications to “smart clients” that work on the Internet. When the user is online, he or she can allow multiple people to edit a document at the same time while everyone continues using their familiar MS Office user interfaces.
Better still is the fact that Live Documents can be accessed offline, a feature that is not available with any current online Office applications. By downloading the optional client, users can create and edit documents from their own computers wherever they go and then connect to the internet when they wish. Once connected, Live Document updates the online version of the user’s document. The Live Document service ensures that the desktop and Web versions are always in sync without the need for time-consuming actions like check-in/check-out, upload/download, or import/export. Users can work on a document in Office when off-line, and the document will be updated in Live Documents the next time the user goes online.
The new Live Documents web-based applications reportedly match almost all the features found in Office 2007, the most recent version of Microsoft's office suite. If you have not yet upgraded to the $400 Microsoft Office 2007, you might want to investigate the free Live Documents service instead. It reportedly has the same "look and feel" as well as the same features.
Live Documents will be given away to individuals free of charge. Each private user will receive 100 megabytes of free data storage space on Live Documents' servers. However, companies must pay for the system, either hosted remotely or on an internal server, although the per-user pricing will be a fraction of the charges for the corporate versions of Microsoft Office – as low as $50 for the full year or $10 per month. Bhatia pointed out, “Volumes can always bring down the price further”. Live Documents already has a dozen or so companies using the new software and expects thousands more will sign up soon.
Live Documents is similar to Google Apps, launched in February and used by many companies, including Proctor & Gamble and General Electric, as a cheaper alternative to Microsoft Office. However, Mr Bhatia claims that his product is superior to Google’s in its range and quality, most crucially because it mimics Office 2007.
He said, “This will do for documents what Hotmail did for e-mail. Why spend $400 on an upgrade when you can get it for free?” He also has no plans to embed ads. “We just want people to enjoy it and tell their friends,” explained Sabeer Bhatia.
Sabeer Bhatia received millions of dollars from Microsoft when he and his partner sold Hotmail. It seems ironic that Mr. Bhatia has plowed several million of those dollars back into a new product with the hope of taking away billions of dollars in revenue from Microsoft.
Live Documents is now available as part of a public beta test. Beta software always has a risk of containing significant bugs. To sign up for the service, you must ask for an invitation. The purpose of the “invitation-only” restriction is to limit the number of people accessing the servers during these early days of beta testing; the company does not want its servers to be overwhelmed. Controlled growth is far better. However, the company expects to make Live Documents available to everyone across the globe within the next 2 to 3 weeks.
In fact, when I first tried to obtain an invitation, the sign-up process did not work at all. After clicking on "Get Invited," a new web browser window appeared, but nothing happened. I have no idea if that is because of a bug or because the system is overloaded with people who want to try the new service.
I returned a few hours later and had better results: the sign-up page appeared instantly instead of hanging. I filled in a request for an invitation. The system asked for my name, my e-mail address, and a password that I created on the spot. It did not ask for any other personal information. After submitting my information, a new screen appeared, stating that I would receive an invitation soon.
I hope to try Live Documents once I receive my invitation as the promise is great. If this new product lives up to its claims and is really as good as Microsoft Office 2007, it could become a great success. However, I'll believe those claims when I see the program in operation, not until then.
If you would like to try Live Documents yourself, point your web browser to http://www.live-documents.com.