Disrupting your desktop
New web tools are changing how office work gets done.
By Oliver Ryan, FORTUNE writer-reporter

(FORTUNE Magazine) -- On June 15, Bill Gates announced his retirement plan, and the software world turned its eyes in unison to Ray Ozzie, his chosen successor.

Ozzie had already signaled his vision for Microsoft (Charts) in a November memo, which was widely summarized as "must beat Google (Charts)."

Mostly overlooked by the media, however, were Ozzie's comments on business software, which might similarly be reduced to "must beat Quickbase."

Quickbase, a division of Intuit (Charts), otherwise known for its tax software, is the elder statesman of a growing crowd of companies hoping to overhaul the way office work is done.

The most publicized aspect of this new software wave is the shift toward applications hosted on remote servers and accessed via web browsers.

While central hosting delivers economies of scale, what's firing the business web crowd with revolutionary fervor is the promise that "webification" will bring to business software the sort of unexpected breakthroughs in collaboration that have reenergized the consumer Internet.

Until the success of Wikipedia, social content creation seemed at best implausible. And before the wildly popular Flickr, few suspected the powerful allure of sharing photos with perfect strangers.

Customized system

The Quickbase product - a sort of online spreadsheet - is at one level a do-it-yourself version of the industrial-strength tools sold by Oracle (Charts) and SAP (Charts) for managing sales or customer service.

Yet because managers can easily create custom "quickbases," they are finding novel ways to apply the software. Procter & Gamble (Charts), for instance, now uses Quickbase to track technology projects.

Before, says P&G exec Irv Kieback, his team used "what we called the MOM, the mother of all spreadsheets. We'd have to have people sitting in a room, going through project by project. Now we just go to the web."

And what works for a FORTUNE 500 IT shop also works for Ramp Motors, a General Motors (Charts) dealer in New York City.

"It lets many people work out of the same songbook," says president John Rampone, who customized Quickbase to manage inventory, rebate programs, and even employee birthdays. "Everything we do touches Quickbase."

Quickbase chief Jana Eggers says revenues and subscribers nearly doubled last year, and 43 of the FORTUNE 100 are customers.

That success has attracted the attention of Harvard professor Clay Christensen - who describes the software as "exquisitely modular and conformable" - as well as a slew of rivals.

Web-friendly

In March, Salesforce.com (Charts), which pioneered online sales management, launched AppExchange, a clearinghouse for web business applications that CEO Marc Benioff modestly hopes will supplant Microsoft Office's lock on the corporate desktop.

Also joining the fray are Silicon Valley startups Socialtext and JotSpot, which have commercialized the technology behind Wikipedia for corporate knowledge management.

Chicago's 37 Signals claims that over 250,000 people are using Basecamp, its web project-management application.

Then there is Microsoft, which under Ozzie is working to make Office more web-friendly.

Ironically Ozzie is the man who gave the world Lotus Notes - the first coming of groupware, which was generally considered ahead of its time.

Now he's playing catch-up.  Top of page