Crocodoc’s HTML Document Viewer Infiltrates the Enterprise

It wasn’t that long ago that you could only read Word documents in Word, you could only view PowerPoint decks in PowerPoint, and you could only read PDFs in Acrobat. But without fully realizing it, we’ve come to the end of an era—the era when reading a digital document required a specialized document viewer (usually the same program that was used to create the document).

Now, more often than not, you can open any common document inside the program you’re already using, whether that’s a Web browser, the e-mail program on your smartphone or tablet, a social networking system like Yammer or LinkedIn, or a file-sharing tool like Dropbox.

You probably didn’t realize it, but there’s one tiny startup powering much of this change. It’s called Crocodoc—and you’ll likely be hearing a lot more about it in the future.

Here at Xconomy, we’ve been following this Massachusetts-born startup, founded by MIT graduate Ryan Damico and three fellow developers, for about four years now. The team started out under the name WebNotes, with a focus on tools for annotating Web pages. In 2010 they got into the Y Combinator startup accelerator program, renamed themselves Crocodoc, and took on the much larger problem of allowing groups to collaborate on editing a document online, no matter what the document type: PowerPoint, PDF, Word, Photoshop, JPEG, or PNG.

A sample page rendered in Crocodoc

In the process, they had to build an embeddable viewer that could take apart any document and reassemble it accurately within a Web browser. And as soon as they’d finished that, they had to tear their own system apart and rebuild it around HTML5 rather than Flash, the Adobe multimedia format that’s edging closer and closer to extinction.

The result of all that iterating is what’s probably the world’s most flexible and faithful HTML5-based document viewer: when you open a PDF, PowerPoint, or Word document in Crocodoc, the Web version looks exactly like the native version, even though it’s basically been stripped down and re-rendered from scratch. When I talked with Damico in February of 2011, the startup had visions of building on this technology to become a kind of central, Web-based clearinghouse for everyone’s documents—a cross between Scribd, Dropbox, and Google Docs, but with a focus on consumers, and with prettier viewing tools.

In the last year, though, Crocodoc’s direction has changed dramatically. Damico and his colleagues realized that it would be smarter to partner with the fastest growing providers of document-sharing services and social business-tool providers than to try to compete with them. “The massive, seismic change for us is that we had a huge opportunity to partner with Dropbox and LinkedIn and SAP and Yammer, and let them build on top of Crocodoc and make it into a core piece of their own products,” Damico says.

In other words, every time an office worker opens a document from within a Web app like Dropbox or Yammer, they’re activating a white-label version of Crocodoc that’s been customized to look like it’s part of the surrounding app. The startup still offers a personal version of its Web-based document viewer, but “Crocodoc proper is our enterprise offering now,” says Damico.

That’s a pretty huge deal for a four-person startup. Dropbox had 50 million users at last count; Yammer had 5 million. Another big Crocodoc user is Edmodo, a San Francisco-based startup that provides a Facebook-like social networking service to 7 million K-12 teachers and students.

“What’s happening at a high level here is that you don’t need software anymore. Desktop software is being replaced by … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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