Thinking Beyond Office, Part 1: Reconsidering Words and Slide Decks

If your office were to ditch Microsoft Office tomorrow for a bunch of forward-thinking apps, what options would be available to you—and would they be ready for prime time? Check out the first part of a two-part series on potential app replacements.

“To put it simply, these changes in the computing landscape are opening up new doors to productivity. Expecting Office to come in and take over the market in one fell swoop assumes that these doors are going to close immediately.”

A little over a year ago, I made this comment near the end of one of my most well-read and controversial articles ever, a little ditty titled “Do We Really Need Office on an iPad?

The debate is still roughly in the same place it was 13 months ago, though the dynamic has continued to shift. Our productivity tools remain important to us, and Microsoft Office isn’t going anywhere.

But the competition has continued to improve. And during last week’s ASAE Great Ideas Conference, I had an interaction that got me thinking about this again: Someone said to me that the iPad article was clear evidence that I “understood where technology was going.” (Hey, thanks!)

With the Office for iPad rumors surfacing once again, I figured now was as good a time as any to look at a few intriguing options for Office-killers. (And since there’s a lot of ground I want to cover, this is gonna be a two-parter.)

Some of them may not be at the level of maturity we need right now—but given a little bit of attention and time, they could be.

Some of them may not be at the level of maturity we need right now—but given a little bit of attention and time, they could be. Let’s take a look down the horizon:

Word Challengers Appear

The reason Office matters so much for so many is Microsoft Word. When it gained fame, it was the right approach at the right time. But in an age when we can do almost everything without a printer, does Word still make sense for the modern office? Some fascinating options to keep an eye on:

Rethinking the flow: Just because we’re used to writing with a sheet of paper doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best or even the most desirable format for writing online. Which is what made me excited about the experimental word processor Gingko. The $4.99-per-month web-based app, which relies on Markdown but is easy for newbies to learn, has an approach unlike anything you’ve ever used. It breaks content down into a series of three trees, each serving different purposes for contextualization. The result is that it’s easier to follow the organization of a longer piece of content, especially one with many bullet points. Documents can be exported into multiple formats, including Word, HTML, or even Impress.js, a Javascript-based slideshow format. (Another option: Any app that promotes itself using the music of a German neoclassical composer probably screams “seriousness,” but iA’s Writer Pro, which gives Nils Frahm some love in its ad, has an intriguing approach to editing workflow that is unlike anything else out there.)

Sharing information: A lot of folks know I’m a big fan of Markdown, but I realize it’s not an easy sell up the ladder to tell people to ditch their rich-text niceties for a scripting language. But the excellent Hackpad, a collaborative wiki-like word processor, offers a little bit from both worlds—it supports rich text, but auto-converts Markdown, which means shortcut nerds and more visual folks will find themselves equally at home on the platform. A good way to describe the app is that it’s a mix between Evernote (in that it’s a good way to share notes), Google Docs (in that it’s designed for real-time collaboration), and Github (in that it’s free to use, unless you want to hide your files from the public). If your association’s main use of Word is to collaborate, this might be a solid option. (Another option: The cloud-based word processor Quip is also in this wheelhouse, though it has a stronger lean on messaging and isn’t nearly as powerful as Hackpad.)

Sliding Past PowerPoint

Of the various pieces of Office, PowerPoint is perhaps the most controversial and therefore the easiest to disrupt. Which is not to say it’s not a good tool, but when used the wrong way, the results can be downright scary or, if you’re at the receiving end of a bad presentation, dreary. Which is why the competition seems fairly mature in comparison:

A better process: Building slides in PowerPoint often feels cumbersome, with a result not always quite as visually appealing as desired. Which is why apps focused on simplicity, like Haiku Deck, are gaining ground. The software, launched by former Office team member Adam Tratt, started as an iPad-only app. (You can work on the web these days, for those of you still tied to a desk.) The app’s interface limits the number of design options—but that’s actually a good thing, because said design options ensure you’re not building a slide like this. And these slides are easy to share with the world around you, too—in the form of embeds. (Another option: If you’re looking for something more robust, the $20-per-month ReadyMag is to Haiku Deck what Adobe InDesign is to PowerPoint. In other words, ReadyMag is a tool that could be used for presentations, but does a lot more, too. Oh yeah, Apple’s Keynote is certainly no slouch.)

Mobile-first slides: As our culture increasingly finds itself online, it only makes sense that we should think less in terms of presentations we do in front of other people and more in terms of self-contained visual stories. A really good approach to this comes from Betaworks, whose Tapestry app is designed to tell stories, one tap at a time. You can’t go back, only forward. (That’s on purpose.) And while it’s embeddable like Slideshare, the real secret to its success is that it’s focused on mobile devices first—not the desktop. It certainly works for presenting, though it really shines as a way to share visuals on the go. (Another option: The similar also has a strong focus on personal expression, though it leans more heavily on social media than Tapestry does. The finished product works on mobile, though it doesn’t have an app.)

Anyway, come back next week, when I’ll tell you about some apps that might wean you off Outlook and Excel. Any tips? Offer them in the comments.

The iPad version of Hackpad. (Hackpad press photo/Associations Now illustration)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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