In the not-too-distant future, Quip CEO Bret Taylor thinks computer files will seem as antiquated as the floppy disk icon we click on to save them.
While he’s not the first to think so, Quip has spent the last couple of years trying to accelerate the file’s decline through its lightweight, web-savvy document and spreadsheet editor, which positions itself as a sort of collaborative anti-Office. Quip doesn’t tie into to traditional file systems or formats; every document is instead built directly into the app, which quickly saves even the tiniest changes to the cloud. You can import or export Office files, but this feels more like a concession than a feature.
Now, Quip is staging a more direct assault on files with native Windows and Mac apps, joining Quip’s existing apps for iOS, Android, and the web. The new apps look similar to Quip’s web-based version, but they strip away the clutter of a browser and are fully functional without an Internet connection. The Mac version also supports Spotlight, so users can search for text within their documents straight from the OS X menu bar. And of course, there’s not a document file in sight, even if you poke around the app’s program directory. It’s as if Google Drive and Office merged together while dumping all their respective baggage.
“We really wanted to make desktop software that worked offline, but abandon the concept of the file as the core unit,” Taylor says.
He argues that Quip does for documents what Netflix and Spotify are doing for video and music. Just as the benefits of massive on-demand media libraries outweigh the drawbacks of not controlling your own files, Taylor hopes the speed and simplicity of Quip’s editing tools will obviate the need for old-fashioned documents.
It’s a intriguing idea, but part of me still hopes he’s wrong.
With music and video, it’s pretty easy to understand why user-facing files are going away. Services like Netflix and Spotify give you more media than you could ever hope to consume, let alone store on all your devices. With ubiquitous high-speed Internet, it makes much more sense to stream that content on demand from someone else’s cloud.
Quip’s argument for file-free documents is a bit different. Word and Excel files are small enough to download in their entirety, and don’t demand a lot of hard drive space. Why not just combine Office with a cloud storage service such as Dropbox–or Microsoft’s own OneDrive–to retrieve your files from anywhere?
“I think that could work for single-user things reasonably effectively,” Taylor says, “but it just breaks down when you’re collaborating.”
With files, Taylor says, trying to collaborate on a document creates all kinds of synchronization problems. Two people uploading an Office file at the same time could cause the software to split off two versions, for instance, and people trying to work through sluggish in-flight Wi-Fi might have trouble keeping up with their colleagues’ changes.
“If two people make changes to the same file, it’s such a coarse-grained thing that it’s impossible to resolve,” Taylor says. “What we’ve done is broken up our document into much smaller units.”
For example, if someone edits the text of a paragraph while offline, and a colleague moves that paragraph around, Quip can merge those changes when both users are back online. The software only synchronizes the parts of the document that change, which helps to avoid conflicts and speeds the syncing process. When overlapping changes do arise–such as two people editing the same word–a “news feed” on the side of the document lets users quickly compare the two edits.
Even documents that aren’t directly collaborative, such as a company’s onboarding materials, could benefit from this system, for instance by syncing automatically to users’ computers but still allowing management to make quick changes. “Because Quip is used by teams and by companies, there is this world of documentation that isn’t yours, but you have access to, and you really do light it up on your computer,” Taylor says.
In a sense, collaboration is to document editing what an endless catalog is to streaming media: It’s the one concept that justifies getting rid of the file.
Partway through our conversation, I admit to Taylor that what he’s saying makes me uneasy. Despite all the advantages of a no-file document editor, controlling the actual files has its perks.
With files, I can easily change document editors–for instance, giving up Office 365 for LibreOffice–without having to transfer any documents. Likewise, I can switch to a platform that Quip doesn’t support–such as Windows Phone–and get to those files as long as a compatible program exists. I can add password protection to a document, or put it in an encrypted folder, and I can control exactly where those files are stored, backing them up to multiple cloud storage services or local hard drives if I want. By comparison, a service like Quip requires a much greater level of trust.
While Taylor has answers to some of those concerns–for instance, Quip’s per-document access controls help eliminate the need for password protection–he admits that there’s something assuring about having control of your own files. Still, he argues it’s a matter of the benefits outweighing the drawbacks.
As an example, Taylor recalls how he rarely emailed from his smartphone at first, preferring only to read messages while saving larger responses for a laptop. That changed over time, as he became more comfortable with typing on a phone and more reliant on having access to email from anywhere. “I think similarly, all the things that these products enable, like the real-time collaboration and whatnot, become so important that despite some of the awkwardness of the transition from the old world to the new, people will embrace it for that reason,” he says.
That’s not to say there’s no room for improvement on issues like document portability. If Quip really wants to drive off the file, it’ll need more ways for folks like me to feel comfortable with the transition.
Either that, or I’m just too stuck in my ways and need to come to terms with reality. In any case, Taylor seems happy to play along. “It does feel emotionally different,” he says, “but I think we’ll end up finding a user experience over time that feels more like the thing you’re describing.”