Content 2.0: Titans & Lilliputians

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As we started 2006, I saw the "Clash of the Titans" metaphor as a way to view the struggle to dominate our content tools: Google and Microsoft were the titans, locked in mortal combat.

The past year has seen Google working to extend its brand beyond search to content creation, including a reported Sun Microsystems partnership to distribute StarOffice, the collaboratively developed opensource alternative to Microsoft Office. Microsoft has been defending its office franchise by breaking its habit of periodic, essentially look-alike releases. Instead, Microsoft is working to radically change the way its office products look, work, and save content in Office 12. Microsoft has also revved up its own web and enterprise search initiatives.

The titans were backed up into two office corners: open source and proprietary, both heavyweights packing tons of clients. Competition for loyalty and the very shape of content continues, usually based on XML—whether through open standards like the Open Document Format (ODF) or proprietary internals in Microsoft Office. Yet titanic struggles often take ages to resolve. As 2006 progressed, Microsoft's Office 12 became Office 2007. Google set aside its plans with Sun, acquired the Writely online word processor, and released both beta Google Spreadsheets and Google Apps for Your Domain. We're all still waiting for a credible Microsoft alternative to Google web and enterprise search, not to mention Office 2007.

Today a new metaphor is emerging: Gulliver tied down by an army of collaborative Lilliputians. You remember the storybook episode in Gulliver's Travels in which one comparatively large sea captain is fettered by dozens of tiny folks working en masse. But who is Gulliver in this metaphor, and who are the Lilliputians? Think Microsoft and the dozens of open source, collaborative initiatives threatening the once invincible source of the world's mainstream computing and office tools. Think "thick," middle-aged, high-maintenance, and proprietary with small, nimble, collaborating upstart foes.

Open source is increasingly popular, in part because nobody wants to concede control over their intellectual property to any vendor. Open source is also being propelled by socialization, supercharged by bands of motivated netizens. I once heard an IT colleague assert that he was "against open source because you couldn't be sure of its quality." I pointed out that eBay does just fine with Apache servers, and that the Apache foundation recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. I asked how confident he was with Internet Explorer's security-patch-of-the-week system.

Indeed, what is amazing is not just that open source standards and tools have been with us for over 10 years, but rather their ubiquity across the computing and content spectrums. It is becoming hard to name an application category that doesn't have an Open Source, low cost offering. Peter Quinn, Massachusetts's former government CIO, established commonwealth policy to use openly published formats like HTML, PDF, and ODF by January 2007. (Although Quinn left the job under pressure, his replacement is essentially sticking with the policy.) Zimbra is a recent example of a product developed on the open source development model, adding collaborative document creation and sharing to its messaging and collaboration software. MindTouch with its open source wiki solutions is another.

Before jumping to conclusions about Proprietary or open source impacts on our content strategies, remember what became of Gulliver. After he escaped Lilliput Island, he encountered the giants on Brobdingnag Island. Microsoft's Office remains huge, owning over 95% of the office document market. You can't ignore its impact or its formats—old and new.

Online office authoring tools will be good enough for some, but will probably never match the speed and sophistication of local thick clients. Office Live may surprise us with a Microsoft metamorphosis. And even Quinn included widely used PDF as an acceptable format, even though PDF is open but not open source. A strategy of using open content standard—endorsed by the likes of the W3C and ISO—promotes both long shelf life and re-usability, but it is always wise to keep an eye on giants. Writely can use ODF, and Microsoft has belatedly announced plans to do so. Open Office can import and export Microsoft Office formats.

XML remains the foundation for Web 2.0 and will likely serve the same role in Content 2.0. Next generation content planning watches the giants and concedes the needs for bridges to proprietary island formats, but recognizes they are bridges, not mainstream thoroughfares.