An emerging Web development technique promises to shake up the status quo in PC software and blur the line between desktop and Web applications.
Over the years, desktop applications tied to a specific operating system have become entrenched as the main way to work on a computer. AJAX, a set of development techniques standardized over the past eight years, could change all that by bringing more sophisticated interfaces to Web applications. With that, backers are hoping it can open a crack in the dominance of desktop software like Microsoft's Office, the undisputed market leader.
"This is a space that's crying out for innovation," said Scott Dietzen, president of messaging start-up Zimbra. "At this point, there isn't a company that's up to challenging Microsoft. But we're out to change that."
On Monday, closely watched Zimbra plans to outline its business model and to announce that it has secured $16 million in venture funding at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco. The San Mateo, Calif.-based company said it will launch its e-mail server software as a free open-source edition next month. Customers can pay a yearly subscription fee for updates and support, and a higher-end version will be available for a price.
Clearly, nobody expects AJAX-style applications--just now entering the market--to overtake Office anytime soon. Microsoft has long controlled more than 90 percent of the desktop software market, and the company's Information Worker unit, which includes Office and related tools, generated more than $11 billion in revenue--more than one quarter of Microsoft's total revenue in fiscal year 2005, according to the company.
But companies like Zimbra are paving the way for others to enter a market long thought to be stagnant.
"My sense is that we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to browser-based applications," Dan Grossman, venture capitalist at Venrock Associates wrote in a recent blog posting. "There are many more on the way, and we'll be increasingly amazed with what can be done," he noted.
Several smaller companies are in the early stages of building AJAX-style applications that are Web-based alternatives to many PC mainstays, potentially luring away Microsoft customers. Examples include project management application Basecamp and an online calendar program now in beta from CalendarHub.
At the moment, Web pages are limited, compared with most desktop applications. AJAX frees Web pages from the clunkiness they suffer from by making them more interactive and so more functional, Web developers say.
Using AJAX, developers can create an interactive user interface that's comparable to what's available on desktop applications. For example, Microsoft Outlook users take for granted that they can drag an e-mail message into a folder, but that's not possible right now with Web-based e-mail clients like MSN Hotmail. With Ajax applications, users can move items such as windows and buttons around a Web page--much as they do with programs linked to Windows or Mac OS.
"Without AJAX, we couldn't have created a user experience that was good enough," said Seth Sternberg, co-founder of Meebo.com , a three-person start-up that provides Web-based instant messaging.
Smaller software makers such as ThinkFree and Writely could eventually create the hosted Web equivalent of Microsoft Office, analyst and writer Richard MacManus noted recently.
Mashing up e-mail
Dietzen said a Web-based architecture provides benefits to IT administrators, namely a common security system and simplified management. Perhaps more significantly, the Web-based architecture lets Zimbra combine e-mail with other applications in novel ways, he said.
"The big thing is e-mail-based 'mash-ups.' The Web is becoming this platform for collaboration. Why should we isolate e-mail?" Dietzen said.
Earlier this year, Google Maps, one of the first applications to make the benefits of AJAX development clear to a broad audience, emerged. The program enables people to use a mouse to move a map image around the screen.