A former Facebook CTO takes on Microsoft Office

December 9, 2014, 6:58 PM UTC
Former Facebook CTO And Quip CEO Bret Taylor Interview
Bret Taylor, co-founder and chief executive officer of Quip and former chief technology officer of Facebook Inc., stands for a photograph after a Bloomberg Television interview in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Thursday, March 20, 2014. Quip is a word processor that enables you to create documents on phones, tablets and desktops. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by David Paul Morris — Bloomberg via Getty Images

I shouldn’t have been surprised. An hour before Quip co-founder and CEO Bret Taylor was scheduled to meet with me about his mobile productivity suite, Fortune‘s staff gathered to discuss how it might better collaborate. Are there tools that can better align with our natural workflows? What of Microsoft Office, Google Apps for Enterprise, Dropbox, Slack?

My colleagues didn’t know that I would soon meet with Taylor, Facebook’s former chief technology officer. But their questions are hardly unique. Virtually every business is asking itself, over and over without end, how it can use new tools on the market to work more efficiently. It’s why some companies want to rethink e-mail and why others want to banish it altogether. It’s the basis for the steady march of companies’ data and applications to the cloud. And it’s one reason why technology organizations are trying to reassert themselves within the larger corporation—because the first person to ask one of these questions is the individual employee, who can acquire a better tool instantly with nothing more than a corporate credit card.

In the case of Quip, Taylor wants to do away with a corporate condition one might call versionitis—inflammation of the inbox with different versions of a collaborative document or spreadsheet. “Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Fwd: Re: Re: sales deck v4 with additions” is, needless to say, a game of hot potato that no one really wins. And, unsurprisingly, the morning ahead of Taylor’s arrival in the Fortune newsroom was filled with a flurry of e-mailed and texted stories, edits, revisions, re-edits—a deluge of copies and carbon copies. He empathizes.

Taylor recalls working on mobile product development in his final years at Facebook (FB), where he noticed a glaring disparity. On one hand, he had admiration for the look and feel of mobile applications like Instagram (which Facebook owns) and Snapchat (which it does not)—“amazing consumer product experiences that were built for mobile,” he says, with simple, easy-to-use interfaces.

Then he eyed the products he used for work. “They just felt the opposite,” he tells me, citing Microsoft Word and Zoho Docs as examples. “They were frozen in time in the ’80s when they were invented.” (While that’s true for Microsoft Word, Zoho’s Docs launched in 2005.) So Taylor left Facebook in summer 2012 and set out to build a better way to work. A year later Taylor debuted Quip, the resulting productivity software suite and company built with co-founder Kevin Gibbs, a friend from his days at Google.

Brandishing an iPad, Taylor taps open his app. A column whisks into the left third of the screen—the telltale stream of an instant messaging tool. On the right, a workspace displaying documents appears. With practiced panache, Taylor swipes and scrolls to demonstrate how to interact with the app. Never once, he points out, does he pinch nor zoom. Those gestures are artifacts, he says: jerry-rigged user experiences ported from the desktop days.

“With Quip we’ve sort of thrown out all the old metaphors,” he says. That means no screen-resizing, no virtual 8.5-by-11-inch sheets of paper, no loading indicators, and no traditional “files.” “All of those details add up,” he says, beaming, “so when you use our product it feels sort of futuristic and magical.”

Courtesy: Quip

Taylor says Quip combines the silos that typically separate interaction and productivity, e-mail and document, Outlook and Word. “Our ambition as a company is to do what Microsoft Office did for the PC era, we would like to do for the era of smartphones and tablets,” he tells me. “Word processing has just gotten a lot less important over time,” he says. “Communication is more important than typesetting and formatting.”

He’s not the only one trying to depose the king. Google’s own free apps (including Docs, Sheets, and Slides) quite prominently took on Microsoft (MSFT) in the mid-2000s; their success, especially on Google Android-based mobile devices, has undoubtedly prompted Microsoft to start giving away its Office 365 mobile apps for free.

Still, Microsoft retains a massive user base. Google (GOOG) is no slouch either. What makes Taylor think he can topple them—from scratch, no less?

For starters, he’s got an incredibly successful track record. Early in his career, Taylor helped create Google Maps and its application programming interface. In 2007 he co-created FriendFeed (which he describes to me, self-deprecatingly, as “the Apple Newton of social networks”) which Facebook acquired for nearly $50 million two years later. At Facebook, he quickly ascended to CTO. In 2010, Fortune named him to its annual 40 Under 40 list.

So far Quip seems to be gaining traction. It has already signed up more than 10,000 companies including Taser and New Relic. And Facebook, of course: Piloted first within Instagram as the photo-sharing service experimented with rolling out native ads, Quip has since spread throughout the rest of the company. That’s the company’s sales strategy, Taylor says—start with a small team, get them excited enough to evangelize the product internally, and watch other departments buy in. The business model is tailored to support word-of-mouth adoption. The app is free for consumers but charges businesses a fee based on the number of people using it.

Marc Bodnick, an executive at Quora, says he’s tried Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Etherpad, and others. None compare to Quip. “Quip is by far the best,” he says. “It’s just a killer product. It gets better every month. You can feel the product getting better. When’s the last time you remember Microsoft Word getting better? In fact, you could argue it’s getting worse.”

Steven Sinofsky, a former Microsoft executive who oversaw many iterations of Office and was president of the company’s Windows division before leaving at the end of 2012, also uses Quip. “I use it, so I like it,” he says. He mentions that he uses it to compose blog posts, but when asked if he believed Quip had a chance of toppling the incumbents, Sinofsky demurs and hurries off the phone. (Perhaps he was uncomfortable speaking out against his former employer; perhaps he was uncomfortable because he advises Box, an enterprise software company that has expanded into productivity. Sinofsky would not say, and remained unavailable to speak in the days following.)

As Taylor wraps up his demo, I notice tiny blue stars in his chat stream. Has the fabled inventor of Facebook’s “like” button forsaken his own creation? I couldn’t help but ask. Taylor says his team didn’t want to use a thumbs up, so it tried a heart-shaped “like” button, much like Instagram and Tumblr use. It turned out to be too polarizing: too emotional and personal for business colleagues, he says. Smiley faces were too goofy and unprofessional. So the team settled on a star much like Twitter’s “favorite” button, except blue in color.

“We had a lot of feedback on that,” Taylor quips.