Why was VRML an also-ran in the flood of new technologies introduced in the 1990s? It wasn’t fundamentally broken or a bad idea. It wasn’t worse than other technologies of the day like Java 1.0 and Shockwave. It certainly didn’t suffer from a lack of hype, investment, or development resources compared to the winners. VRML fail for one reason and one reason only: it didn’t run on the Mac; and OpenOffice is failing now for the same reason.
The problem was all the VRML vendors looked at the Mac’s marginal market share, and decided they couldn’t afford to support it. (Linux either.) Of course they completely missed some very important factors:
- Many Windows PCs were doing boring, ordinary tasks like data entry that were never going to need VRML.
- Mac marketshare was much higher in education, though still not a majority.
- Mac marketshare was much higher among home users surfing the web recreationally.
Thus VRML chopped off a good portion of its potential user base at a stroke. In fact, it chopped off enough that nobody who actually wanted to reach end users could seriously consider it. However, that’s still not the most important reason VRML failed.
The real reason VRML failed is that Mac market share approached or exceeded 50% among the Web designers creating the early Web in the mid-90s. Every web shop in business at the time was just raring to jump on the next hot bandwagon, but when they looked at VRML the first thing they saw was that there weren’t any tools for them to use. So instead they looked at Java, Shockwave, Flash, HTML, Acrobat, and other things that at least ran on the Mac, even if they didn’t run well. VRML never recovered.
OpenOffice is in a little better shape than VRML was. It does run on the Mac, but so poorly no Mac user can seriously consider it for anything but opening the occasional OpenOffice document emailed to them by a Linux zealot. NeoOffice is a much better alternative, but it is still crippled by sitting on top of a code base written with little to no concern for the Mac. Too many user interface idiosyncrasies are the result of anti-Mac design decisions made in the core OpenOffice code base. NeoOffice is painting a pig to look like a tiger, but it still oinks instead of roars.
If OpenOffice is serious about supplanting Microsoft Office as the standard office suite (not merely the standard office document format) then it has to learn something Microsoft learned decades ago. It is not enough to run well on the preeminent desktop platform with 90% market share. You have to run on the Mac too. Microsoft Office is the de facto standard because people don’t have to think about who they’re sending a document to or what software they’re running. Publishers don’t have to force authors onto a specific platform. They just send out a Word template, and everyone’s happy. OpenOffice doesn’t make everyone happy.
Linux users will put up with crappy user interfaces that are never consistent from one program to the next. Windows users often will. Mac users never will, and there are too many Macs out there to ignore. On the Mac, OpenOffice and NeoOffice are dancing bears. It’s amazing that the products dance at all, but what we need are ballerinas, not bears.
It is possible to write good, cross-platform software that Mac, Windows, and Linux users will all enthusiastically adopt because they want to, not because it’s cheap or because some Linux zealot sysadmin installed it on their PC when they weren’t looking. Firefox proves this, and consequently Firefox is well on its way to 50% market share or better. Until OpenOffice makes a similar commitment to treating the Mac on an equal footing with Windows, it will not supplant Microsoft Office. It can achieve a few adoptions here and there in cost conscious businesses and government agencies. It can find a reliable place on the miniscule fraction of the desktop market running Linux. However, it’s never going to come close to 50% market share or establish itself as the standard office software.