Adobe to Acquire Virtual Ubiquity

Adobe announced tonight that they have arrived at a definitive agreement to acquire Virtual Ubiquity, creator of the Buzzword online word processor. As described previously on Radar, Rick Treitman , former Lotus word processing manager and sometime proprietor of Softpro Books, heard me give one of my early Web 2.0 riffs to a group of booksellers, and realized that he needed to get back in the game.

Congratulations to Rick on the sale, and to Adobe on the acquisition! Buzzword really does blow away any other online word processor. Virtual Ubiquity likes to describe it as the “first real online word processor,” and in many ways they are right. The quality of the typography, the layout, and the whole user experience are far ahead of other online word processors like Google Docs. And of course that’s why Adobe is interested, because Buzzword shows off just how much richer an application can be when it’s done with Adobe’s Integrated Runtime (AIR).

What Buzzword has that no other online word processor matches includes such features as flowing text around pictures, drag and drop table layout, fabulous typography, and a smooth, quick UI. Take a look at the page below from Buzzword’s own online documentation:

a page from the buzzword documentation

(Buzzword provides its documentation in Buzzword itself. Each new user gets a copy of the documentation, complete with instructions for things to try on that very document to learn the features. It makes for a great learning experience, since it’s a sandbox as well as a manual. Buzzword also has the cutest-ever sleep message. If you leave your document open too long without any activity, Buzzword goes to sleep, with the baby shown above appearing in its place. Makes me smile every time I see it.)

Despite its superiority, Buzzword has lagged behind Google Docs (originally Writely) in adoption. This was partly due to the fact that Google Docs was first to market, but is also a testament to the market power of Google, and to the fact that in the Web 2.0 era, success is all about network effects.

Being first has always mattered. (See Ries and Trout’s first law in The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.) What’s more, software has always been subject to network effects, in which the most widely used application becomes more and more dominant, just because it’s more widely used, much as someone like Paris Hilton is famous for being famous. To the extent that any work product of the application is shared, the switching cost involves moving everyone that you already work with onto the new platform. That’s why it was so hard for anyone to make a dent in the supremacy of Microsoft office, especially with proprietary file formats.

But in the Web 2.0 era, there is a new dimension. Now the software is free to all, so there’s a much lower barrier to switching. But there’s still a barrier in the form of existing documents in proprietary non-portable formats, and also in the community of users who have access to the application. Sharing a document with someone in the same network is easier than adding a new user, who has to sign up for an identity before they can begin to use the application.

As a result, one of Adobe’s priorities has got to be to make it easy for people to try buzzword and their other products without signing up for and managing yet another online identity. I’ve asked if they’ll be supporting OpenId but haven’t heard back yet. It’s not a huge barrier to register, but it turns a one-click process into a multi-click process, and every additional click will likely lose some potential users.

Right now, Buzzword has its own sign-in, separate from Adobe’s other online products. (See related announcement.) Clearly the two will need to be integrated. But I hope they’ll go further, and rather than trying to build their own identity base, just recognize any openID provider.

In any event, the acquisition will certainly put Buzzword much more strongly on the map. It will no longer be one more startup trying to compete with Google and Microsoft, but a part of a much larger company that has a unique angle on publishing and the sharing of all kinds of documents.

Years ago, Henry McGilton told me about what he called “the three F’s”: “First, Fabulous, or F***ed.” (We can sanitize that to “First, Fabulous, or Forget It.”) Buzzword wasn’t first, but it is fabulous, and I hope that that’s good enough that it escapes the fate of the third F.

Sign up here to try Buzzword.