April 22, 2020

Google Docs was the First Modern Software

It's Writely's world we're all working from home in

by @maguay

Writer. Amateur photographer. Information architect. Frm. founding editor @racket and @capiche, senior writer @zapier, Mac and Web editor @AppStorm. Personal blog: @techinch.
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Write the first draft on your computer at a desk. Add a few random extra ideas while in line for lunch. See the changes a colleague made among your phone’s other notifications when you first wake up tomorrow. Rediscover the document years later, go back in time and see the first sentences you edited out, remix them into today’s new document without even remembering what computer you used or where you were when it all started.

It’s a world reminiscent of Microsoft’s visions of the future released every few years, where seemingly any screen can show your work and what you need to do next. We never quite got there on a computer level, where a fingerprint turns any screen into your personal computer.

But on an application level, we’re there. We’ve been there since 2005. It’s just taken a decade and a half for everything else to catch up to the world Google Docs née Writely built.

The almighty file.

Writely screenshot

“It’ll be Flickr for documents!” thought the Writely team as they started building the online collaborative writing app, as founder Sam Shillace relayed shortly after Writely launched in August 2005.

Flickr seemed inspiration enough, the Instagram and TikTok of its generation, launched in 2004 by Stewart Butterfield (better known today as Slack’s founder) and acquired by Yahoo! the following year. It was the place your photos could go viral and end up in the news. In a trait that would carry over to Google Docs, you’d put photos in Flickr and not have to worry about backing them up, knowing they’d be there the next time you needed them.

Flickr was part of a generation of software built around files. The desktop software market was already saturated with industry-standard tools to create files, the Adobe’s and Microsoft’s of the world. The gap was in sharing and collaboration. If you’d edited a photo and wanted to get feedback, or send it to someone else in your company to use in a larger project, you’d email it or carry it down the hall in a flash drive or put it on a shared company server. If you wanted to publish it online, you might need to build a whole website just for that.

Enter Flickr, InVision, DocSend, and more, tools built around sharing files, finished work from other apps. They closed the gap between desktop software and the web, made it possible to build things on your computer and share them with the world. They even helped mitigate file compatibility; by focusing on the output and finished work, it didn’t matter so much if you used Word and your colleague used Pages. They skated to where the puck was going to be.

The Writely team? They were skating in an entirely different game. Instead of building the Flickr for documents, for the next decade and change, the tool they built made new software teams aspire to create the Google Docs née Writely for their vertical.

What is modern software?

If there’s one defining factor of modern productivity software, it’s omnipresence. Everywhere, all the time.

It’s not just web apps in your browser we expect to work that way. It’s everything. Write a note on your iPhone, and you expect it to show up on your Mac. Add a contact to your CRM, and your colleague should see it instantaneously. Save a bookmark in Chrome at work, and Chrome on your phone and at home should show it too.

Traditional software is built around your computer and files. Open a blank document, create something new, save it, and close the software. It works for you on your device.

Modern software is built around the internet and your user account. The constants are your account and internet access; everything else is variable. You might use the software in a browser or in a native app, on a phone or desktop. You might use it headless without a device, adding data automatically via APIs. Modern software is expected to morph and adapt and work wherever you want.

Modern software should:

  • Work everywhere, whether with native apps that offer generally the same features on each platform or with a well-designed web app that’s responsive and works in any browser.
  • Save and sync automatically, so you can pick up work where you left off anywhere, anytime.
  • Keep everything together, with every file and item you create accessible in one place.
  • Collaborate with others, where anyone else can use the software and add feedback or changes.
  • Connect to other software, with API access and automation to get work done on its own behind the scenes.

There are new mobile apps that are traditional software, tools built primarily around individual creation. And there are older software that can act like modern software thanks to go-betweens like Dropbox. But on the whole, when new software comes to the workplace, that’s how we expect it to work.

It means you can start work and pick it up anywhere. It means you could pick up any device in the world and make it “your” computer by logging into your apps. It means you can work on the same document or project with others without ever emailing files back and forth. It means you can connect forms and eCommerce sites and more to add new data to your apps while you sleep.

And that’s what the Writely team started in 2005.

Where we’re going we don’t need files.

“It got started as an experiment,” explained Shillace to The Verge in 2013, years after his team’s creation became Google Docs. “I wanted to work with what was then called AJAX (Javascript in the browser) and noticed the ‘content editable’ functionality of the browsers.”

Gmail had proved the year before after its April Fools’ day launch that online software could feel as polished and fast as desktop software, something people would buy invite codes off eBay to try. So when Shillace’s team found themselves building a notes app where they “just weren’t in love with the project,” the itch to build a new tool in the browser turned into the word processor for the 21st century.

A word processor needs a blank space to add text, a toolbar with font and formatting options, a way to import and export, and print documents. That’s the basics. But what would do for docs what Gmail did to email, make you want to use a simpler app in your browser than Microsoft Word?

Collaboration. In that earliest interview, the team described it as a tool “to edit documents online with whomever you choose, and then publish and/or blog them online. You can edit them together at the same time, or separately.” That was the groundbreaking thing that made Writely instantly different from Microsoft Word. Not just a copy of Word that worked online, but an entirely different tool.

“Collaboration on documents wasn’t really a thing we thought of as a first-order goal,” explained Shillace later. “we just thought locking was kind of gross (locking a document so others can’t accidentally overwrite your edits) and thought that it should feel natural if you were working on something with someone else.”

Collaborating means saving. Writely needed to save every character and keystroke online, then replicate them on every other screen collaborating on that document. And so, in another modernization, the save button was needed no longer. “It freaks people out when they ‘can’t save’ their document,” said Shillace to The Verge, but it was the right choice that today feels natural (imagine pressing save in Notion, for instance).

So Writely shipped with real-time collaboration and auto-saving, something that didn’t come to Microsoft Word’s online app until late 2013 and the rest of the suite three to five years later.

That simple difference made Writely closed the productivity loop more than any word processor that had come before. You could write a document, add edits and inputs from others, and publish the finished document all from the same app.

7 months after launching, Writely was acquired by Google as the cornerstone of what became G Suite. And today, it’s still one of the best ways to collaborate in real-time on copy.

Net work.

Modern Google Docs

It was natural enough for Salesforce to put a CRM online. Even in a company, data-heavy applications were run on servers and accessed remotely. Even email, perhaps, wasn’t quite so odd to put in a browser when Gmail came along. You have to be connected to the internet to get email, after all, and Hotmail had put email in the browser a half-decade prior (even if it wasn’t as fancy as Gmail).

Google Docs put a line in the sand, almost by accident, building collaborative tools to keep from having to lock documents and then removing the save button because collaboration meant auto-saving. It showed us that software could work in a new, device-agnostic, easier way, where your account was all that mattered, where backups and file formats and compatibility issues faded away. It said you could share your software, that if you used Docs and wanted someone else to, you could just invite them—nothing to buy, no software to install. Free as in freedom to share and work the way you want.

Then Airtable did it for for databases, Notion for notes, Front for email, Figma for design, Descript for podcasts, Webflow for website creation, Soundtrap for music, and on and on it goes.

“We think a major shift in applications is happening right now. It will probably take a few years to be fully realized, but the world will look very different when it does,” predicted Shillace weeks after launching Writely. “We don’t think the new apps will be copies of the desktop apps, but we think applications will become smaller, more connected, more customized, and more about what our friend Peter Rip calls ‘Net Work’.”

In another interview with The Guardian he went on, “Once we all take for granted that we live on the internet, and all of our applications are on the internet - once we get to that point, the way we now all assume that everybody is connected to the internet ... new things will emerge.”

It took a few years, but it happened. Web apps won, and the new normal is connected software that works everywhere, all the time. It’s the change that made remote work instantly possible when needed this year, whether your team uses Google Docs or any of the tools that grew up in its shadow.

Files never fully disappeared, but they’re even more a final, finished product than before (JPG images and PDF documents are the top file-formats shared on Box this year, for instance), with the in-progress work living inside modern, connected apps.

File inception.

Figma inside Notion

Software 1.0 was local, locked down to one user, one computer, one file at a time.

Software 2.0 is connected, collaborative, makes sure everything you create is available anywhere, anytime, by anyone you share it with.

Software 3.0—future software, that future that’s already here but not evenly distributed—then, just might be software inside software.

No software lives on its own. The original software bundle, Microsoft Office, let you embed Excel spreadsheets inside Word documents years ago—enough to slow down the PCs of the day as your computer literally ran Excel inside of Word. And today’s best modern software similarly lets apps live inside of apps.

  • Airtable’s collaborative databases let you include any media or website in your data.
  • Quip put documents, chat, and spreadsheets in one app, and lets you remix them at will.
  • Dropbox Paper puts videos, music, and social media posts into documents.
  • Notion put databases and Figma designs and Google Maps and more inside notes.
  • Coda lets you write spreadsheet formulas inside documents.
  • Slack’s popularity is partly built on bringing all of your team’s apps into chat.
  • Zapier connects app features, making modern software connected much like Dropbox file sync makes desktop software modern.
  • Even Google Docs and Sheets have Google Tasks and Google Calendar in the sidebar, and 3rd party apps as add-ons.

It’s not just that modern software can run on any sized screen, or that you can pipe data through APIs into apps. It’s that they’re flexible enough, you can merge them into mashups that work the way you need.

Instead of exporting a PDF or JPG image and attaching it to a note, or taking a screenshot of your work in progress and sharing it instead, you can put your work from one app inside of another for a quick preview. It’s what Shillace said about software becoming “smaller, more connected, more customized” come true. It’s how no-code tool creation is so easy today; you can essentially grab a feature from one product and put it in another without thinking, with the best new software.

Modern files are your work inside best-in-breed software. Modern software is best-in-breed software that works wherever you need. And future software is software that works as well together as modern software does at collaboration.

It’s not quite there yet. Embedding is only baby steps, and even best-in-class collaboration tools are only in a premier selection of today’s software. But it’s getting better.

It’s the path Google Docs started software down a decade and a half ago.

Image Credit: Header image background via Omar Flores from Unsplash. Writely screenshot via Brian McNitt's blog.

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