Quip and the end of the paper communication protocol

Word, PowerPoint, Google Sheets, and Google Slides share the same fundamental, analog constraint as did the typewriter: the printed page. Paper as the primary workplace communication protocol is still at the core of these products, and it is fundamentally outdated.

Any businessperson today is familiar with the winners of the first wave of digital transformation in enterprise productivity: Microsoft’s Office suite of products. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are ubiquitous in the workplace, but they are the last of their kind.

We have reached the end of a long line of on-premise productivity tools centered around the individual desktop user, tracing back to the likes of WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, and even the stand-alone word processing machines of the 1960s and 70s and the IBM Selectric typewriter. As has been said ad nauseum, the workplace is moving to the cloud and placing paramount importance on digital collaboration, and applications which cannot make that transition are being replaced. Fare thee well, Office 2010.

At first glance, the winners in this new cloud-collaboration era would seem to be obvious — Google’s Docs suite and Microsoft’s Office 365 suite. These applications have moved off the desktop and into the cloud. Multiple users can edit documents simultaneously. If paid, it’s via subscriptions instead of licenses. They have mobile apps! But as important as Docs and Offfice 365 are in changing the mentality of workplace users, they represent the awkward transition from one era to the next, not the new normal.

Word, PowerPoint, Google Sheets, and Google Slides share the same fundamental, analog constraint as did the typewriter: the printed page. No matter the number of next-gen features layered on to these products, they are, at their core, typesetting tools. Their purpose is to convert information into a format which can be transmitted through the analog protocol that is the 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper. The printed page as the primary workplace communication protocol is still at the core of these products, and it is fundamentally outdated.

And thus, we are experiencing a new wave of digital transformation in the workplace, one where we finally abandon a paper-based communication protocol in favor of a truly digital one. Indeed, Steven Sinofsky calls it not a transition, but outright disruption. It seems ridiculous to contend that ‘paperless’ is only now, in 2015, becoming reality, but even if we’ve stopped hitting the “print” button, we’re still using tools built entirely around the requirement that we can.

Enter Quip. Quip

Quip has created a productivity suite that finally moves beyond the printed page. Quip retains many of the features of a Google Docs, including word processing and spreadsheets, but finally abandons the legacy constraints of paper, fully embracing the mobile device as the center of its design paradigm. The application is designed from the ground-up for the world we live in today, in which we communicate constantly and remain connected at all times, where mobile devices play a key role in content creation and enable the same untethered content consumption once monopolized by paper. The printed page no longer needs to be the lowest-common-denominator for content consumption; Quip recognizes that mobile devices are poised to take over that position and has built its platform accordingly.

For Quip, the tradeoff is between something familiar and something that makes inherently more sense. Users may opt for the familiar paper-centric tools for longer than would benefit them, but Quip has the full potential of the digital ecosystem at its disposal to change behaviors, unencumbered by legacy analog constraints. Just as Apple used but eventually abandoned skeuomorphism, ubiquitous ties to paper in the workplace will be inevitably abandoned and Quip is leading this charge.

As Sinofsky observes, “The existence and paramount importance of ‘document creation tools’ as the nature of work appear, in hindsight, to have served as a slight detour of our collective focus. Tools can now work more like we like to work, rather than forcing us to structure our work to suit the tools.” We no longer live in an episodic world of data collection —> analysis—> presentation —> decision, and repeat. With real-time access to the continuously evolving data required for decision making, the ‘print’ button might as well be renamed ‘pause’, which few organizations can afford to do. Quip has this tailwind at its back.


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Student comments on Quip and the end of the paper communication protocol

  1. I like you’re assertion that Quip and the broader groundswell in digital creation and consumption heralds the death of paper. It intuitively makes sense that the form factor constraints of paper along with the waterfall development process it imposes, make it a poor mechanism for modern communication. However, I think there is an underlying question of how people best create and consume content. Quip is designing an app that allows long form communication on mobile, but norms and the use case of mobile encourages sound-byte, piece-meal opining. I worry that Quip is designing for the devices we use not the ways we communicate.

  2. I also agree with you that the rise in digital creation and consumption will make paper communications rarer and rarer. However, I wonder if some of what Google docs and Microsoft 365 is holding on to is not so much paper but a common standard by which business people and students find efficient and convenient to create and consume content. For example, I think the form of ppt slides serves to allow presenters to focus on one idea at a time before moving on to the next. As Rob C. says, what would be really neat is for Quip to think about how we can better communicate given that we don’t have the constraint of paper. Until they find something that is more effective than the “old” ways of presenting or writing memos to each other, I can imagine inertia causing people to stay with the old methods.

  3. Like Rob, I can definitely see the appeal of moving away from the now-almost-irrelevant 8.5″x11″ paper.

    I was skeptic, at first: do users really prefer to edit text on their phones? I personally still do 99% of my writing/editing on my laptop, with its big screen, mouse, fast processor and keyboard. Plus one of the most important things for me is compatability – I want to be sure that when I send someone my Word doc, the indentation won’t be all messed up on their end.

    But then I found a TC article saying they have ~30k businesses using it, including Facebook, CNN and others, so I guess I should at least give it a shot.

    1. As a quick anecdote, I wrote this post using Quip’s iPhone app — Had I been stationary, I would have defaulted to the desktop app, but I was on the road this weekend and never had great access to a PC. Quip has designed their mobile apps so that the creation process really is just as good on the phone as it is on a laptop — the only advantage of using my PC is my typing speed, everything else is a comparable experience across devices. Combine that with the fact that I can write / edit wherever and whenever inspiration strikes, and I now probably do 50% of my text editing on a phone.

  4. I absolutely agree that Quip is a company creating and capturing tremendous value, though I guess I came to that conclusion a bit differently. You mentioned that Quip differentiates itself from Microsoft Office and Google Apps by ignoring “the same, analog constraint as did the typewriter: the printed page.” I definitely agree that a printed page is not always the most efficient way to communicate information. But I also believe Quip’s lack of a printed page is simply the design aspect of its larger goal mentioned by Bret Taylor, to do for mobile what Microsoft Office did for the PC. Given shifts to mobile platforms, Quip is advantaged over Microsoft and Google since their legacy businesses started on the PC rather than starting from mobile like Quip did, and that can cause misaligned incentives. To me, Quip’s product differentiation stems from its focus on collaboration, mobility, interactivity, and seamless online-offline transitions with documents at any time.

  5. Super cool product and interesting big-picture tech questions. Anything that eliminates email is a winner in my book.

    It seems relatively clear to me that Quip (and other mobile-first enterprise productivity suites like Slack) create value by allowing people to do work where and how they’d like to. A question that arises for me, however, is whether or not Quip significantly changes the way that value is captured in the space. I wonder whether this type of tool points toward a new business model (aside from the freemium subscription models that currently dominate productivity software), allowing quip to capture more of the value that gets created.

    Will Quip be able to monetize in creative new ways? Will people/companies be willing to pay more for premium features with Quip? What barriers to entry can Quip construct behind them as they make inroads into more companies and industries?

    It seems like the flexibility that Quip will need in its products (i.e. allowing users to stay in the printed page form, exporting to traditional file formats, etc) will leave the door open for other competition. Perhaps they have enough of a lead in the space that switching costs will increase for their enterprise customers as they continue to produce content in Quip’s formats. But that remains to be seen.

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