Matt’s Cuppa Interviews Tad Staley of Virtual Ubiquity’s Buzzword
Posted by telecommatt on September 11, 2007
I recently put together a review of Virtual Ubiquity’s word processor for the web, Buzzword. In fact, I wrote the entire article using Buzzword. Using a web-based text editor is nothing new to me. With the insane variety of office applications on the web, the only time I use Microsoft Office is when I’m in the office. I’ve begun to feel that most desktop office applications are too cumbersome for my everyday needs.
In the same way, after spending a week or so using Buzzword, I was starting to find that online text editors, like Google Docs and Zoho Writer, were also too cumbersome. One of the ideas behind Buzzword was to be able to create documents online that print just the way they look online, and Virtual Ubiquity did just that. What they also did was create an application that works so well that you actually look for excuses to use it.
After finishing the review for eHub, I went back to Tad Staley, of Virtual Ubiquity, with idea of a short interview. (The interview was also a chance for me to play with Buzzword’s document collaboration features. Like nearly everything else about Buzzword, collaboration worked exactly the you expect that it should.) What I expected to be just a brief interview, Tad turned into one of the longest, most thoughtful, and most dedicated responses I have received. It becomes obvious very quickly that Buzzword is more than just another web application.
1. Every startup has a story. You touch on this on the Virtual Ubiquity blog, but can you talk a little about how Buzzword came together? Who were the main players? What challenges did Buzzword overcome?
Buzzword was first conceived by Rick Treitman, founder and CEO. Rick had been in charge of the Document Products Group at Lotus in the 1980s, which was responsible for shipping Lotus’ DOS-based word-processor called Manuscript.
Manuscript did not make the jump to Windows. Rick observed then, as Word on Windows overtook WordPerfect, that no word processor leader had ever retained its leadership across a platform change – not Wang, not WordStar, not WordPerfect.
When Rick attended an O’Reilly conference in the fall of 2004, and heard Tim O’Reilly describe web 2.0 as a “platform change”, his reaction was immediate – may be time for a new word processor.
When Rick returned from the conference, he contacted a handful of former colleagues – all industry veterans, with experience in text and layout, collaboration, web applications and platforms, and this ad hoc team began to put together its plans. Rick sold his high tech bookstore, Softpro Books (where he had weathered the Windows platform era) and incorporated Virtual Ubiquity in June 2005.
With the addition of CTO Mike Kraley and architect Paul Kleppner, followed soon by senior developer David Coletta, Rick had a team in place that could flesh out his vision. A key part of that vision was to deliver an elegant user experience on the web, and this led to the evaluation and selection of Adobe’s Flex as the development environment, with the application to be deployed on the Flash platform.
The small team worked in Mike Kraley’s attic for a year without funding. When Adobe saw the work that they had done on their platform, which included an early version on the newly announced Apollo (now AIR) platform, Virtual Ubiquity became the first recipient of Adobe’s venture fund in the fall of 2006.
The funding allowed Virtual Ubiquity to expand the team and move into real office space. A key hire following Adobe’s funding was designer Robby Shaver, a veteran of Lotus, ATG and Maven, who elevated the Buzzword user experience to a whole new level.
2. What about competition? Do you feel that there is competition in your market, or has Buzzword created their own market niche? What’s in store for the future of your market space?
Word processing is a well-understood application area, and there are dozens of alternatives. We tend to think of these entrees as residing along one of two dimensions – either they are desktop applications that are generally rich in experience and functionality, or they are web-based and offer the advantages of that environment – specifically, collaboration and document ubiquity.
Buzzword is unique in that it offers the advantages of both dimensions: it’s web-based so users always have access to their document, and they have the ability to share their documents with collaborators. However, unlike other web-based writing environments like Google Docs, Buzzword offers rich user experience that is unparalleled on the web. This is made possible by our choice of Flash as our delivery platform. We like to say that Buzzword is for documents that matter.
Many current word processors are attempting to bridge the gap between desktop and web, between off-line and online usage. Some, like Microsoft Word, attempt to span these two realms by extending desktop functionality to the web through some shared services. Others, like Zoho or Google Docs, attempt to extend their web functionality to the desktop through some advcanced AJAX techniques.
Buzzword will offer functionality both on the web and in a standalone case through Adobe’s forthcoming AIR platform. We have described the value of the AIR platform, formerly known as Apollo, on our blog at http://blog.virtub.com/?p=13.
3. According to your blog, your primary audience falls into two groups: students and mobile workers. On your signup page, you also ask people why they want to try Buzzword. Have the responses fallen into those two groups? Have they identified other groups or helped you refine your product? Do you see your user-base changing as your product and the read-write web mature?
We have gotten a virtual anthology of stories from our signup page. The stories range from terse to whimsical and prosaic. Throughout the process, we’ve learned a lot about people’s interests, preferences and writing environments. We envision this as only the beginning of an ongoing process – we want to stay in conversation with users as much as possible as Buzzword evolves. This feedback loop not only shapes the product but personalizes our design and development.
The responses have indeed validated our assumptions about the target audience (see blog entry http://blog.virtub.com/?p=7). We have gotten significant response from academia – lots of college students, but also professors, distance education specialists, as well as school and college IT coordinators.
Mobile writers have also been very interested. One of the use cases we’re hearing a lot is from people who either travel a lot, or work closely with others in disparate locations. Of course, we have also heard from editorial folks who manage written content through a series of review processes. One person told us he sits across the table from his collaborator, and “spitballs” ideas back and forth in a document.
We’re certain that the user base will evolve with the maturity of the read-write web and the product itself. We have gotten considerable interest from enterprises, which surprised us somewhat; we recognize that this environment brings with it another whole set of requirements.
4. There is a line from one of your blog articles that I particulary like: “…design enriches life.” Tell us more about this.
The “design enriches life” line came out of our “Design Matters” blog entry (http://blog.virtub.com/?p=12), which further elaborates on the point. Suffice to say that we recognize the success Apple has achieved by its attention to design detail. Driven by founder and CEO Rick Treitman, design has been a priority principle from the very beginning.
The feedback we’ve gotten has been gratifying, and seems to validate the attention that comes from good design. Here’s just a small sampling of what we’ve read about our design recently:
“Of all the online word processors I have tried, none strikes a more perfect balance between features, user friendliness, aesthetics, and speed… In short, buzzword is the best online wordprocessor I have come across. I have willingly abandoned Google Docs for it.” – Startup Squad blog entry (8-16-07)
“The interface is clean and streamlined and everything just seems to make sense where it is and how it works. It is responsive and fast and pretty much the nicest “practical and functional” word processor I have used – web based or otherwise.” – Sugar Attack blog entry (8-17-07)
“I’ve totally enjoyed using Buzzword. I think the interface is fantastic, to the point that I will now find using Google Docs & Spreadsheets and Zoho Writer to be cumbersome.” – Emily Chang’s eHub blog entry (8-22-07)
“I love the interface, that is the biggest thing i have to say, people want to work in an environment that is appealing, that is not jarring on their eyes and VU have created a system here that fulfills both those.” – Christopher Wilkie blog entry (8-24-07)
5. Are there any social, political, or environmental causes that Buzzword, either as individuals or as a company, feels deserve special attention? Are there any causes or charities with which Buzzword has a partnership or relationship?
We’re only a startup and, though comprised of passionate and conscientious folks, each with his and her own causes, we haven’t yet invested time as a company to identify any particular issue.
However, one area of focus worth mentioning is our interest in education; in particular, bringing useful and usable tools to help students with their writing. Some of the most effective educational environments are collaborative, and we’ve already seen Buzzword do well in supporting collaborative learning.
In general, we like to say that Buzzword should be used when you care what your document looks like. It’s for people who take writing seriously, and we think that the richness of the Buzzword environment will encourage more people to take their writing seriously.
We hope that Buzzword will encourage writers of all ages to write well and write often.
6. And, finally, what’s best about being a part of Buzzword? What about Buzzword makes you shiver to talk about or jump out of bed before the alarm goes off in the morning?
There are many aspects of the Buzzword experience that we all value. Foremost is the notion that we’re delivering something that matters. We’re driven by putting a great application in as many people’s hands as possible and smoothing the collaboration process for all those tethered to word+email as a make-do solution.
And, of course, we’re excited about giving a great piece of design to the world.