Sometimes revolutions happen so slowly you don't really notice, but after 30 years, it's pretty clear that every generation has its own favorite desktop productivity tools. Yes, Microsoft Office (which gave me my start in life!) is still the dominant product that is the default for most businesses, but the leading edge keeps shifting. And, it does seem like every decade or so the next generation has a new set of tools for very good reasons. So to go through a little history of how it works, let's look at the tools that I've used over the years.
But two quick thoughts before a long boring history, so here are some ideas about Influential End-Users (and by this I don't mean Kylie Jenner and social media influencers, I mean someone who has shown up on a job and she/he/they are new to it and so they are likely to accept new tools):
- It does seem like innovation in knowledge work happens in a similar way each time. There is conventional wisdom. If you are a veteran in your job, then the current way works, and its way more trouble to do things differently. And it is hard for humans to understand exponentials. After all, we lived for 50,000 years in a world where basically nothing changed.
- Then there are always the noobs, the new people on the scene either young or immigrants. It is most likely people not "encumbered" by the past, so they see everything as new and different. They are not molded. And, they have not problem learning a new toolset. And they want to impress their boss, their parents, or whomever, so they want to "set their laser on stun" to really impress folks. So they pick a new technology kitbag and become the boss.
- Well, the years roll by and the next generation appears to say 10 years later and now the noobie is the master and he/she/they are resistant to change. And the cycle continues.
So when it comes to personal productivity, I've seen this play out no less than 5 times in my own life. It's so easy to stay stuck because, well it works and in the early phases, the old tools are more productive, but eventually the small advantages of the new "Office" grow exponentially and those that can adapt (eg have enough creative new blood coming in) end up staying at the top of the game. So let's see how this plays out across the big six categories that make knowledge work function.
OK, it's way, way back in the 1970s before the start of the PC revolution. Before then, the big three, writing documents, doing analysis, presenting and delivering things were done is a pretty quaint way:
- Documents: Typewriters and Wang Word Processing. Yes, Microsoft back then had a word processing pool (or you used a typewrite with white out or if you were lucky an IBM Selectric with Correctable type). The really advanced companies had a word processing pool and if you were important you could send it there or your secretary.
- Spreadsheets: HP-65 Calculators. Yes, there was paper and pencil and calculators. I loved my Dad's HP-65 costing $795 in 1974 which had little magnetic strips and you programmed it. It was really neat. Then you could transcribe them.
- Presentations: The 3M Overhead Projector, Xeroxed Handouts, and Kodak 35MM Carousel Slide Projector. And back then, you had an overhead projector and you just wrote what you wanted. Or if you were really cool, you would send slides out for production and people would carry around carousels of these things.
- Communications: The SF65 Messenger Envelope for Inter-office Mail and Federal Express. Well, it's ancient history, but there were these manilla envelopes and you would insert the document you had written and cross out the names and then put them in an outbox and a real human would pick them up and use them. If you had to send something fast, then there was couriers, FedEx and of course good old US Postal Service.
- Applications: DEC Minicomputers and IBM Data Centers and. In short they didn't really exist, you called the data processing department and hoped you were in the queue somewhere. Minicomputers were the great freeing of the departments from central IT. For the advanced folks who could program themselves, there was Formula Translator (FORTRAN) programs (and if you were lucky Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code BASIC) or if you were really lucky C programs and you would run jobs, get big printouts. What an era!
- Storage and Search: Rolodex, Book, Libraries. 8 inch floppies and microfiche. OK, they really did have those big floppies back then and it was really for the super cool to have something stored like that.. And yes, I definitely did my share of reading on a microfiche lots of old photographed letters and documents
I remember so well the 1980s because being at the vanguard of the change in desktop productivity was super cool. There was a period when everything automated and the PC (and the Mac as a niche) was great. But back then, here were the tools that the avante guard were using. The big issues back then were what a waste of time for professionals to have to go and waste their time typing when they should be working.
At our company at the time, there was also this fight about the minicomputer and mainframes being completely adequate in the face of all this and centrally controlled. This was really the first time I saw the power of the hungry upstart, the recent college graduate who embraces the new and uses it to move their career forward. We know how that turned out 🙂
- Documents: WordStar and then WordPerfect. I remember the first day I opened up a brand new PC and saw a paragraph reformat. This was the era of keyboards, 24x80 character green screens using the IBM Monochrome Display Adapter, and no graphics. But, the amount of energy saved by a simple backspace and then a Ctrl-B to reformat a paragraph was like a miracle. As an aside you can still run WordStar and there is even the 1983 manual around if you want to see it.
- Spreadsheets: Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston's VisiCalc and Mitch Kapor and Jonathan Sachs' Lotus 1-2-3. Wow, I remember the first time in our IT department when we brought a computer in and saw these cool colors (CGA was the rage, 16 different colors) and I watched a whole sheet magically change. And typing something in and having copy and paste cells and have it magically all work was incredible. This was also the era where a few people could write an entire program. Thanks all!
- Presentations: Freelance. OK, I never actually used this program because I wasn't doing much presenting, but pretty slick what you could do with DOS. I have to give myself an amazing 5-stars for actually recalling the name of a product I hadn't thought about in 30 years.
- Communications. Email. OK, these were still character-oriented programs. I used the cleverly named Unix mail and Berkeley Mail package and the Xenix Mail which was a Microsoft variant.
- Applications: dBASE. I still remember buying dBASE IV at Egghead for $495 and writing my first real application with it. A miracle to get that all running. And you can still run dBASE V today
- Search and Storage: 3 1/2 floppies . Some of us still remember the way to give someone a file was to give them first a 5 1/4 and then a 3 1/2 floppy.
Now in the 1990s, of course, Microsoft and Apple mouse-driven products emerged. Again, there was a pitched battle between those who thought the graphics and mouse were a distraction because who needs lots of fonts and things when it gets in the way. But of course, the real answer like the previous generation was that it was the up-and-coming analysts who wanted to impress their boss. And in my life, I spent a decade selling to those people and making sure they got promoted. Seeing those incredible graphics printed out on an HP LaserJet was just incredible and had real impact:
- Documents: Microsoft Word (aka Opus) and Aldus Pagemaker. Actually, this is one case where the code name was even cooler than the marketing name. I remember the first day I saw Opus in action at a training session on Compaq Portables. These were gigantic luggable but the plasma screen was amazing. The idea of WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) made flipping modes to look at the document seem positively ancient. Also hats of the folks at Aldus who created the first layout editor. I still remember doing disk labels and news letters in it.
- Spreadsheets: Microsoft Excel. OK, I have a warm spot for this one mainly because of the ease with which a Lotus 1-2-3 user could operate it (what a journey that was and what a responsive organization the Excel Business Unit was back then!). But main thing was the integration of Charting directly into the sheet. I could demo insert the Chart directly into the Spreadsheet and then print it on an HP LaserJet all day long. Not to mention, the invention of autosum and putting the first toolbar there for common commands. Thanks to all from philw, josephk, dawntr, peteh, jonde, chrisp and mikemap everyone else from those days for the opportunity!
- Presentations: Microsoft PowerPoint. I still have to type out Microsoft in front of everything as will drilled into me. But the idea that this was the easiest way to do 35mm-quality presentations was one of the first things I learned from Jeff Raikes at some pitch about positioning and meeting Bob Gaskins just after Forethought was acquired. And of course, PowerPoints are basically a noun in the business world these days. But the idea that there were these templates and they looked amazing and you could show them on the screen was so cool.
- Communications: Mail and Outlook and emailing attachments. And of course, I spent more hours than I like to admit trying to figure out how to create a rich applications base that allowed collaboration. This was the battle between the Groupware category where you could create what would be today called Webapps simply and easily vs. the 99% needed application of Mail, Calendaring, and Contacts. That battle still goes on today but it was all about separating a set function like Mail with writing a custom application. Of course email is the dominant way that you do these things.
- Applications: Lotus Notes. OK, my old buddies will fight alot about this, but Microsoft Access, Visual Basic could be used to create an application, but Notes really pulled it all together and tried to make everyone a programmer.
- Store and Search Hard Disks and Mail Attachments. Just find it somewhere on your hard disk by looking around and I don't know how many things I lost this way. While amazing, how many times did people say I know it is on the C drive somewhere. Or the more classic, I see the A drive is the floppy, but what happened to the B drive?
Well, things took a big turn when the Internet arrived and collaboration became a thing in the 2010s. This was the time when I was no longer in those wars and just looking for the best possible tool. It was also a time when folks in Middle and High School were using tools and sharing became the word of today. It was also the day I switched to them. But, the big things for this new generation of character-by-character collaboration, a single drive in the sky, lots of integrations with third parties, and, of course, mobile experiences. It took a long time from the initial launch in 2006, but Google pulled together a nice suite of services that were completely cloud based and it was really Google Drive launching in 2012 that tied it all together.
And again the cycle starts anew with this cloud based storage enables global virtual companies in a way that couldn't have happened before:
- Documents: Google Docs. Wow, I remember the first time I saw real-time collaboration and how great it was to group edit a document and actually watch people type and edit right there. I'm still amazed that it can scale to that. Plus, Docs reduced the complexity of Word dramatically and it was compatible enough (that was never super), but you could read and write word docs. And the sharing of links was huge. But the huge win was making it all work on mobile
- Spreadsheets: Google Sheets. This was the product that I really rediscovered because it was so convenient not to have to remember which version was which and where it was. The basic spreadsheet function meant that it could handle Excel sheets, but the power was actually in Google Drive and having a place where it was always backed up.
- Presentations: Google Slides. OK, this has been my goto editing tool for a long time because the templates are good and it uses a flat design which came into fashion then. But, the main advantage is no more emailing slides around, you can edit directly in place and not worry about versions. Finally, I don't want to admit how many presentations I would just on my iPhone while listening in meetings it was not perfect but it was great. The key thing though is being able to add photos from stock photo places like Unsplash or Pexel and also to link to YouTube and Google Drive videos made it easy to create multimedia presentations.
- Communications: Slack and Mail and Texting.... OK, the main limitation of the product above is what do you do on an airplane. Google worked hard on their offline solutions for this, but this really hurt with mail. I have been using Mac Mail for years because it is so simple. Also splitting the apps into Mail, Calendar, and Contacts at least for me was more logical. I can open up Contacts. But the big thing was the perfect symmetry between desktop, tablet and mobile. Having the same interface on all three was just great. And finally, Slack is controversial I'm sure (and who knows what Saleforce.com will do to it), but as a quick start for everyone to see what is going on with remembering to CC, it is super useful. I'm not sure it scales well beyond a startup, but when you are just starting something, they hit the right level of easy entry and with integrations making it easy to put into the workflow of a company. Now if they would only fix their search.
- Trello, and other Node.js MySQL Applications. Well, there were enough web designers that you could create an application with Node and just run it in the browser against MySQL or something. So the realm of Groupware became Web Applications. It wasn't the vision of every office worker a developer, but the more realistic one that focused on the speed of creating applications and their beauty.
- Dropbox and Google Drive. Dropbox was the first, but the idea of a single storage location was incredible, and being able to share without emailing someone a document and having a search as smart as Google Search made finding documents way, way easier.
Finally, today in the 2020s, it sure does seem like there is a tooling change as these first generation web-first, mobile-first applications are giving way to the next generation. The big thing here is the sea of templates and libraries that are available with these products. While that last generation was about collaboration and mobile, this one is about being the fast way to get to beauty. And for the analytics, it seems like a fundamental shift is happening there too. These are still rough, but I can see my tooling change as the advantages of being truly part of the Internet (most of these things completely break without broadband) are here:
- Documents: Jupyter, DeepNote, and Binder. This really rough technology allows code, text, and calculations to get merged (something that has been really hard for 40 years) is a game-changer. I'm writing my first patent filing completely in Jupyter and it is a big learning curve, but if you know Python or R, it is an awesome way to finally get that integrated document we've all been looking for. Plus, the new JupyterLab has extensions which are the key. Even more important are the zillions of ways that you can host and collaborate on notebooks. Binder for instance lets you just publish a notebook read-only and DeepNote is doing a great job on collaborating to bring that same keystroke-by-keystroke integration.
- Spreadsheets: AirTable and Python with pandas and SciPy. This to me is the most exciting area that's happening right now. The old Excel jockeys are now kids who have been writing Python applications since they were 12 (and probably younger). That plus, The most important thing is that the dataset is no long 64K rows, but millions of images or free text data that you can access with a
importcommand. And with virtual machines are everywhere that will just run this for you. That plus the millions of libraries really simplifies analysis. AirTable is at the other end of the spectrum, it is a spreadsheet on steroids with zillions of templates. There are always going to be people who don't have time to write real software so AirTable is pretty great for that, but if you want to impress your boss quickly, learn Python and Numpy 🙂
- Presentation: Canva. Ok, this has been my latest find thanks to Bharat. I've always thought of Canva as something for doing Facebook ads, but they've evolved alot and right now there are a zillion templates that you can use for presentations. And they've integrated it with a complete design tool with an image library so that you can put stock photos in. Really cool stuff. And like most of these products, a simple share a link and you can view. So you don't all need to have the same Google Drive or whatever, it's in the application.
- Communications: Zoom and The Blizzard of Whatsapp, Discord, etc. I'm not sure what is going to happen here, but I'm bombarded now by messages as folks move beyond Email and Slack to a blizzard of things.
- Applications: Streamlit, AirTable and No code web apps. Well now AirTable has evolved beyond just spreadsheets and you have all the common applications like project management available as templates. Plus it is a real database so you can have multiple rows and things. Streamlit does not technically just Jupyter Notebook (formerly iPython) format but is realted in that it is all about simple shareable applications with a minimum of Python.
- Cross application links and Oauth. With the use of authentication, you don't have to be all under a single login, remember the questions, "do you have a Google login" now you applications just store things and that is much easier, although it makes search a way bigger problem.