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Online PowerPoint Youtube-alike menaces Microsoft

Comment Will Google copy, ignore,or buy?
Thu Aug 02 2007, 12:46
THE DESKTOP is moving towards the web, and there's nothing the Microsoft Juggernaut can do about it, other than gritting its teeth and lukewarmly accepting the fact. Now, imagine their joy at another web-based office documents invention: "Youtube for Presentations".

"Hey, take a look at this presentation" suggested an e-mail from a friend. However, there was no attached PPS file but rather a simple URL. "Oh great," I thought... "Now I'll have to go and see where on that file is on a long web page" - grudgingly as usual.

alt='youtube-presentations-6'
A serious presentation - or not
Any resemblance with Youtube is purely coincidental, we imagine

I was wrong. The link pointed towards AuthorStream.com, a new site which aims to provide the ease of use and "viral-marketing" nature of Youtube, but this time to the world of presentation files.

The site has a striking and uncanny resemblance to Google's Youtube. I wouldn't go as far as saying it's an exact replica, because I think the page footer is a bit different. Another obvious difference is that there are no videos on it, just PowerPoint presentations converted to Flash format. All this user-submitted content can be searched, clicked and "played" online without having to download a single file, a very interesting proposition.

alt='youtube-presentations-1'
The end of big PPS files attached to chain e-mails?

I immediately went looking around for the Google logo but there was none. The site is registered to the name of Sikhya Solutions LLC, with the address of an office in Raleigh, North Carolina, so it looks like a new small entrepreneur operation. Needless to say the fact that it's a free site means bad news for those who built a similar solution but on the basis of a "paid web service" approach instead of this YT clone.

Threat to Microsoft?
While the site accepts files only in Microsoft's PowerPoint format - which one could argue is a plus for MSFT- the fact is that anyone -no matter the OS used- who has OpenOffice.org, StarOffice or any other compatible suite like ThinkFree can generate presentations in Microsoft's PPS / PPT file format and upload those to the site as well, so vendor lock-in is not there for the Vole. This also helps spreads the notion that paying a hefty price for a full office suite is getting less enticing every day.

But the problem is more evident when MSFT itself - surely trying to protect one of its main cash cows - seems to be in a state of denial about this trend of "web-ifying" everything. In an article published today by Canadian paper Globe and Mail, our quiet friend at Vole Central doesn't sound too enthusiastic. "CEO Steve Ballmer threw some cold water on the idea that software and services based on the Web will somehow replace the kinds of functions currently performed by desktop software," says the Globe, which quotes the timid exec as saying: "People tend to get weird and extreme about this, does everything move to the cloud? I think that is wrong-minded."

*Cough*

So how good is it?
The site still looks somewhat empty, in comparison with wildly successful video upload/sharing sites, but that's understandable since this PowerPoint-based incarnation is only a few months old, as it operated under a different model not copying Youtube and using a proprietary presentations format rather than PowerPoint files as the source.

alt='youtube-presentations-2'
Results page doesn't look right in the Firefox browser

So, being a new development and in its beta-testing stage, most searches still bring back a number of results in the two to three digits range. But there was also one noticeable glitch that is hard to avoid: after you type a search and hit the button to get the results, those appear skewed a whole page to the right so you have to use the browser's scroll bars to navigate to the results list, and leaving the site's top header in turn skewed to the left. Probably it works OK in IE, as I only tested with Firefox, but in this day and age cross-browser compatibility is to be expected-.

Besides that, its main function, that is searching for and viewing presentations on-line without a single download is one job that the Authorstream site does well. An applet using Adobe's Flash format loads and plays the presentation in seconds - in fact faster than any of Youtube's videos, surely a result of the smaller nature of the uploaded PP files compared to the huge MPEG4 videos that YT must deal with. Interestingly, by looking at the browser status bar while the presentations are loading you can see Amazon Web Services URLs, hinting perhaps at the fact that the site might be probably using Amazon.com's "S3" Simple Storage Service for its data archival.

Currently in "beta testing" phase, the site allows anyone to register and upload PP files and tagging those with keywords, so that anyone who visits the site can then search for those and view them on-line in the browser. Like Youtube, it allows boggers to "embed" the presentation into third party sites, providing a link that gives you the HTML code snippet that you should paste into your blog entry to have the square applet -and the presentation it plays- show up on your blog or web site. Uploading PPS files to the web and linking them will surely go the way of the dodo.

alt='youtube-presentations-5'
Just like in Youtube, you can click share and invite
others to see the presentation online

It also allows viewing presentations in "Full Screen" mode by clicking on the appropriate icon -although in my notebooks' 1280x800 screen what I got really was a pop-up window with the Flash based presentations player taking an area similar to a 800x600 resolution, or something close to it. There's a volume control as in Youtube for those presentations that have background soundtracks or sounds, and finally, visitors can leave comments about each entry, just as in Youtube where you can say whether a particular video sucks or is the best thing since sliced bread.

I'm a little sceptical about people getting passionate and voting on on-line Flash versions of PPS files, but one never knows. While browsing the site's current uploads I found light humour and boring Microsoft presentations, and even presentations featuring scantily clad women [work safe] but there doesn't seem to be any major company uploading all its sales material to the site, at least that I could find. But hey, the concept is promising and quite interesting.

Boggers will surely love the idea of pasting a tiny code snippet and have something flashy to show off, instead of having to upload the presentation files to a server and link to them for download -or purchasing the PPS-to-Flash conversion software themselves and then running it and uploading and hosting the Flash player files themselves -which is a more extenuating and expensive exercise.

Not a magic sauce
How does Authorstream do it?. Well, the basic technology that they use isn't exactly exclusive, as there are several programs out there with prices ranging from to $199 that convert PPT/PPS (PowerPoint format) presentation files to Adobe's Flash format, which can be then uploaded to any web server and viewed with a browser by anyone -using any OS that has the Flash plug-in available, of course, as Flash remains a proprietary format and some non-mainstream OSs still lack an official Flash player.

PowerPoint to Flash conversion software is available from several firms including Russian based CPS labs, FlashDemo and , among others. What is indeed innovative is taking an existing solution, and twisting it to create something new, by imitating Google's Youtube but for a different market.

Questions
The questions that come to the mind of this humble scribbler are three:

1. Will people really flock to the AuthorStream site to upload their presentation files?
2.How much it would take for proprietary, confidential information to eventually surface on this site or sites like it?. If you think about it the potential for whistle-blowers is much greater with tools like these.
3. Which of these will happen: Google buying AuthorStream, or the search giant directly implementing the same idea using their existing Youtube back-end, possibly naming it "YouTube Presentations"?

Conclusion
I see this site, and others, like Slideshare and the one which almost invented the concept ZohoShow, as one potential tool to replace the nasty "chain letter" with a huge attached PowerPoint file that is a menace for e-mail server administrators and unsuspecting victims as well. I have seen a few examples already of unions using it to give more reach to their presentations denouncing governments or calling for strikes. Clearly, it's easier to make a PP slideshow with a bunch of pictures and big typeface text than recording a video.

And as "Google Docs" aims for the corporate user and the SMB, AuthorStream seems to aim for the general public, and seems to be ideal for the "funny" viral presentations. I'm wondering how long will it take to the Google behemoth to wake up and see this. One thing is for certain: clearly the forwarded PPT / PPS is going the way of the dodo.µ

See also
How Nintendo's boss silenced Steve Ballmer
Ballmer blames pirates for poor Vista sales
Microsoft's Alpha Male threw toys out of pram, claim

L'INQs:
The benefits of converting PowerPoint to Flash
Globe: Microsoft's castle in the clouds?
Google Presentations: one stop closer to replacing MS Office?
[JULY/07] Google buys Postini for $625M cash
[JUNE/07] Google buys Feedburner for $100M cash
[APRIL/07] Google buys Java-based PowerPoint software firm
[APRIL/07] Google buys Java-based video conferencing software from Marratech
[OCTOBER/06] Google buys Youtube
Whistle-blowers will likely wait for the Youtube clone that does Excel spreadsheets
Youtube video showing 'Google Apps'
Sun, Google to Push Java, Toolbar

 

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