New web service looks to push Office off desktop

Entrepreneur Michael Robertson, a pioneer in online music, launched in beta on Thursday a web service for creating documents and saving them on a computer's hard drive as a Microsoft Word file.

AjaxWrite is meant for people who do not use Microsoft Office or some other desktop productivity application, but have a need to create a Word document, said Robertson, who founded in 1997 and is now chief executive of desktop-Linux distributor Linspire Inc. in San Diego. The new service does not have storage capabilities, collaboration features or even a spell checker, but those capabilities are planned.

The way Robertson sees it, people will eventually want to go to the Internet to write documents and spreadsheets, create presentations or do other chores accomplished today mostly through desktop applications like Microsoft Word, WordPerfect from Corel Corp., or OpenOffice, an open-source suite available for free.

To attract people to AjaxWrite, which is a product of Ajax13 Inc., a company funded by Robertson, he plans to launch new capabilities every Wednesday for the next two months. He declined to list the upcoming features.

"As those products are released, you'll see a business model take shape," Robertson said.

That's possible, given the fact that the lines between the desktop and the Web are blurring. Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc. and Google Inc. have shipped a variety of desktop applications that are tightly integrated with the Internet, helping to speed up the trend.

With the increasing use of broadband, people are starting to see the Web as an integral part of a computer, which means many capabilities found in desktop applications today are migrating to the Internet.

"As that environment becomes more familiar and the lines between the Web and the desktop blur ... products like AjaxWrite have potentially greater appeal," Joe Wilcox, analyst for JupiterResearch, said.

AjaxWrite, according to Robertson, is unique because the application runs in a Web browser, but looks like a desktop application, with the look and feel of Word. That's made possible by the use of Ajax, a method for developing interactive user interfaces for Web applications, using standards-based enhancements to JavaScript.

"One application (such as AjaxWrite) is of marginal value," Robertson said. "The power of Ajax is when there's a richer suite that accomplishes the majority of what people need to do in a desktop world. That's exactly what we're working on." In choosing word processing first, Robertson is tacking something that has become commoditized for the consumer. The capability is available today as a part of many applications, from email to blogging services, which means Microsoft Office in the future is more likely to be used as a standalone suite among businesses.

Indeed, seeing that trend, Microsoft in November launched its Live initiative to eventually offer all its software as a Web service.

Google this month jumped into the market for Web-based office productivity applications with the purchase of Writely, an online word-processing service that allows users to store and work with text documents. Users can also share selected documents with other Writely users, enabling groups to collaboratively edit documents.

Robertson declined to say how he plans to make money from his service, but said he doesn't plan to support it through advertising. He also is funding the project himself, and does not have any investors.

"The goal here is to get people away from expensive desktop products, and into small, powerful applications that load directly off the Internet," Robertson said.

Robertson has experienced in launching projects with his own money. In February, he launched online music store

He launched his original music site in 1997. At its height, the portal was the No. 1 music site on the Web with 3 million hits a month. In 2000, however, a federal court ruled that a portion of the service violated copyright law by allowing songs from commercial CDs to be downloaded. Robertson sold to Vivendi Universal, which sold it in 2003. UKFast is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites.

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