The Future of Productivity Software

Over the years though, the center of gravity of “work” has gradually shifted away from paper based workflows to automated software-powered workflows and fully virtual modes of communication and collaboration. This has created a new class of documents that are fundamentally different from their traditional counterparts.

The first version of Microsoft Office was released in 1989. Thirty years later, the Microsoft Office product suite is still going strong — a rare feat of endurance in an industry used to frequent change and paradigm shifts. The mobile, cloud app powered world today bears little resemblance to the desktop software PC era of the 1980s. And yet, the first version of office still feels oddly familiar, even contemporary in a minimalist sort of way:

Microsoft Office v1.0 (1989)
Google Docs (2019)

Obviously the productivity tools of today are infinitely more powerful and capable than their predecessors from the PC era but it is still remarkable that an end-user facing app has remained largely intact across computing eras decades apart.

It is easy to blame Microsoft for a lack of imagination. But then you have to ask why some other forward-thinking company didn’t try to break the status quo? Even when Google released a competing cloud product in 2006 it was with a very similar interface to the Office suite.

There is a better explanation. All productivity software boils down to a set of tools that by their very nature are bound to the tasks they enable. If these tasks don’t change very much, it becomes hard to break out of the mold and innovate on the tool itself. We haven’t seen big advances in productivity software because what you need from a word processor, spreadsheet or presentation software hasn’t fundamentally changed since they were first invented. So as computers got faster and faster, the only thing left to do was to simply add new “bells and whistles” to the existing software. Many versions later you get a toolbar that looks like this:

Over the years though, the center of gravity of “work” has gradually shifted away from paper based workflows to automated software-powered workflows and fully virtual modes of communication and collaboration. This has created a new class of documents that are fundamentally different from their traditional counterparts.

A quick glance at the Office and Google G-suite template libraries reveals document templates for diverse use cases ranging from customer-relationship management databases (CRM), marketing dashboards, and financial planning to complex end-to-end business workflows that automatically sync a document with back-end systems, connecting incoming customer requests to tailored outbound responses.


Many of these templates blur the distinction between an app and a document. In fact, a document that serves as a CRM database can clearly also be an app (Salesforce!). You could of course just use Salesforce as your CRM but sometimes it’s easier to get started with a simple, lightweight doc than a complicated app. Also, for every CRM use-case there are countless others in the long-tail for which no app exists — and the horizontal nature of productivity tools means you never run out of places to use them.

The other interesting aspect of these new documents is that they are dynamic and always-on. A spreadsheet with key business metrics pulled continuously and automatically from Salesforce, JIRA and Zendesk is a living document, working on your behalf even when you’re not logged in or staring at it. It is an app. You can print it as a document, but it will likely be out of date by the time it is printed.

One reason these new documents exist in the first place is that most knowledge workers are not coders. When they need a custom app they end up creating a document that more or less behaves like an app they would have coded if they could have.

And the fact that these emergent use cases exist in the form of documents and not as a collection of independent ad hoc apps is a reflection of how productivity tools have become junctions where knowledge workers congregate to create, edit, discuss, debate, delegate and take action. Human intensive work happens inside these workspaces, making them the logical conduit that ties the human layer to the software layers that actually run the business.

This leads to the inevitable conclusion that the right way to think about next generation productivity software is as a platform for building custom apps and workflows. This view is clearly an uncomfortable fit to the existing paradigm of productivity tools. It may finally be time for a reimagination of the entire category.

All of this explains the recent interest from both entrepreneurs and investors in next generation productivity software. In the last few years, we have seen some bold new products in the productivity space from startups (Notion, Airtable, Glide and others), each attacking the market from a different angle. The main thrust of exploration has centered around revisiting old design assumptions that go back to a time when manual, paper based workflows dominated office work.

If we start with the premise that physical paper is not the final resting place of a document and not the ultimate system-of-record, then we can begin to ease some of the paper centric assumptions inherent in traditional productivity tools (e.g. margins, paragraph/page breaks etc.). Conversely we can embrace new aspects of a digital-only medium such as URL links to organize, connect and nest information. And more generally we can break out of narrow associations of tools with tasks — Word for documents, Excel for spreadsheets and PowerPoint for presentations.

For a document to be an app it has to be programmable. One way to do that is to write code (macros in Visual Basic) to enable new document behaviors. But most knowledge workers are not coders so you end up with a big barrier to mass adoption.

The other approach is to give up on full programmability and instead focus on making it easy to stitch together custom workflows composed of various external services with the document as a base. The cloud today makes this possible. With an ever expanding list of accessible API driven services that can be tied together with simple “if this then that” logic (e.g. using Zapier) we can create some pretty complex pieces of logic. This approach may not be as powerful and expressive as a Turing complete programming language but it will be better in one important way: people will actually use it! The Unix shell is a constant reminder of the power that comes from simple, composable building blocks. This is a promising direction of programmability that we are scratching the surface on.

We often link disruption to inventions — from which come new products that radically alter market dynamics and reset incumbent advantages. The invention of the microprocessor made PCs possible. With the PC came the rise of Microsoft and the fall of IBM and its mainframe monopoly. The Web made cloud applications possible — shifting platform power away from the Windows monopoly.

However sometimes the preconditions for change don’t come from disruptive new technologies but from changes in user behavior, habits and norms. This kind of change is often gradual and easy to miss but just as profound. The recent interest in new paradigms for productivity software is best understood in this context. What started with the PC revolution in the 1980s has over the years gradually but fundamentally changed the nature of work inside an office. Paper based workflows have given way to software automation and new forms of collaboration and online work. The existing productivity tools are no longer a good fit for this new world. We are still working out what the productivity apps of the future will look like but it is clear we have hit an inflection point. A decade from now productivity software will look nothing like its ancestors. It’s morning again in the land of productivity software.

Ramu Arunachalam General Partner
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