The new fight for your productivity: Airtable, Coda, Notion and more.


A renewed fight for productivity tools

It's been over 12 years since Google launched its collaborative Microsoft Office competitor, Google Docs, which unraveled Microsoft's plans and forced it to spend the last decade building Office 365. Now there's a renewed push to build better tooling that thinks beyond the page, and the wars are heating up.

Earlier this week, a startup called Airtable raised $100 million dollars to build the future of the spreadsheet. It's astounding how important the invention of the spreadsheet has been for almost every industry, but just as surprising how little has changed since it first was introduced.

Airtable's product is what I'd call a hybrid of Excel and Access — it's the power of a spreadsheet, backed by the strength of a database. Essentially, you're able to enter data once, then manipulate it in a number of different ways to make it more useful. Add a map, drop in images, change a view — the idea is that the raw data can be useful beyond just a bunch of rows.

It's a fairly big step forward for a tool you probably don't spend much time thinking about at all. Office was disrupted by collaboration tools, and it appears Docs will be disrupted by thinking about the problem differently.

What makes Airtable so powerful is how it empowers people to build useful tools without needing to know how to code or translate that data into something else. The product's blocks feature allows slapping another layer on top of your data, like Google Maps, to create a basic application, powered by your data.

Beyond Spreadsheets

It isn't just the spreadsheet being iterated on like this, either, with other startups innovating in each niche of the productivity space today, thinking about how things could work better.

Here's a few examples:

Coda, which directly competes with Airtable, combines the word processor and spreadsheet to smash them into a single place for teams to log in to, rather than a disparate set of 'tools' that each do something different.

Dropbox Paper focuses in on making the word processing experience better, moving beyond the A4-focused document editor and just genuinely building a tool that gets out of the way so you can write.

Notion, which basically does all of the above, becoming the source of all truth for your team, and allowing them to construct the structure or complexity that suits them. Embed a spreadsheet, use that data elsewhere to quickly get insight into some key metric in one place.

This isn't just play money, either: along with Airtable's $100 million raise, Coda raised $60 million and Dropbox is, well, a public company.

I use Notion myself, and one reason I think it's got a great shot at success in the industry is it's great for individual use as well, making it an easy sell from the bottom-up at organizations.

The problem, in general, is that these tools all come with a steep learning curve. If the jump from Office to Docs was disruptive and frustrating for office workers, Airtable is an even bigger step.

Reality check

Microsoft is still everywhere, even 12 years on from the launch of Google Docs, but it's hard to come by reliably metrics on who dominates the market.

In January, Reuters wrote that Google has more than 4 million paying customers for G Suite, but the majority of the Fortune 500 still use Office. And that's probably true: big enterprise is slow to adopt new things; it's a safe bet to use the tools that are familiar.

But, Datanyze, an analytics company that scrapes data from domain names, pins G Suite's share at 62 percent of the 6 million domains it monitors, while a study found that 80 million students rely on Google's tools.

Not only is the productivity war not over, it's barely even begun. But, with Airtable, Coda, Notion and other modern tooling aggressively pushing into the game, we're getting fresh ideas that flip the idea of 'productivity suite' on its head.

All of these new tools empower users with the lego blocks they need to do more with their data, and think in a more modern way than their predecessors. Why do we type into an A4- shaped document when most of us probably don't even have a printer anymore?

Productivity tools seemed like a solved problem, which two industry giants were battling over, but that left an opening for new ideas as the largest platforms stagnated. Keep an eye on this space, because like Slack has quickly accelerated to become the new standard for communication, I think we'll see a huge shift in tooling, yet again, in the next few years.

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