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4/9/2010
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Microsoft Web Apps Will Force Google's Hand

2010 versions of Office, SharePoint pressure Google to respond.

With Microsoft's 2010 portfolio of Office products coming out shortly, Google is under the gun. It has to figure out how to head off Microsoft before the company closes the gap on browser-based applications (which it fully intends to do).

Google's battle cry for much of the last year was, "The Web has won." Yet it was a premature declaration of victory. Web applications still don't get the respect accorded to their desktop counterparts.

The Web may have won in a theoretical sense -- few doubt the industry is embracing cloud computing -- but coaxing computer users to change ways formed over decades of desktop application use remains a challenge.

It's one month before Office and SharePoint 2010 come out for businesses, at which time Microsoft will officially put a browser-based application strategy into play, one that company officials expect to neutralize the threat posed to Office by Google Apps.

To keep customers from defecting, Microsoft will make a strong push -- some might say "incentives" -- to get customers to upgrade to the 2010 versions of its client- and server-side Office products sooner rather than later. For example, gaining access to the browser-based versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint will require users to have access to SharePoint 2010 and a license to Microsoft Office 2010. To intercept that upgrade cycle, expect Google to preempt Microsoft's launch with announcements of its own improvements to Google Apps.

So what might Google do?

Google's approach thus far has relied on promoting what it considers a superior user experience. "We want to spoil people like heck in their personal lives, and then when they go to work, they should be asking the question, 'Why are things so hard?'" explained Bradley Horowitz, VP of product management.

Superior to Google translates to speed and simplicity. Speed remains a top priority across Google's product line. It's fundamental to its Chrome browser and Chrome OS, and for all of the applications that are part of Google Apps. Google and organizations such as Mozilla have helped increase JavaScript performance more than 100 fold over the past decade. It matters. Slow and steady does not win the race if you're a Web app.

And simplicity, beyond being an obvious way to appeal to a broad set of users -- no one likes reading manuals -- has proven to be an effective way for Google and others challenging Microsoft across a broad variety of fronts to differentiate their offerings from Office and other sophisticated enterprise products that have evolved over decades by adding feature after feature.

The simplicity of Google's online applications, particularly Google Docs, has made them easy for Microsoft to dismiss. And for years, Google has leaned into Microsoft's punch by downplaying suggestions that Google Apps competes with Microsoft Office. Google Docs "does not have all the functionality, nor is it intended to have all the functionality, of Microsoft Office," declared Google CEO Eric Schmidt back in 2007 the Web 2.0 Expo.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Web. Microsoft has moved aggressively to make its products more and more useful for workplace collaboration. And Google has moved aggressively to woo business customers from Microsoft and other enterprise heavyweights. Take one look at the City of Los Angeles' recent decision to drop Novell's GroupWise and to de-emphasize Microsoft Office in favor of Google Apps. The competition is clear.

Or hear it straight from the mouth of Matt Glotzbach, product management director for Google's enterprise group: "We want the vast majority of users of Microsoft Office to be able to easily switch to Google Docs."

Doubts about Google in the corporate market have been diminishing, thanks to the company's increased marketing, rapid-fire product releases, and strategic acquisitions. From the "Going Google" advertising campaign launched last summer, to a series of software tools for business users that connect to competitors' software including Exchange, Outlook, and Notes, to the launch of the Google Apps Marketplace, Apps Script, and the acquisition of DocVerse, Google has been working hard to win the confidence of IT decision makers.

"We've certainly seen from Google greater willingness to negotiate, to meet enterprises needs," said Gartner VP and distinguished analyst Whit Andrews. He characterizes Google's ongoing series of enterprise-oriented announcements as "a long, incremental reveal" designed to help companies see Google as a strategic vendor.

Delivering products that users love demands constant dissatisfaction with the status quo, a quality that Dave Girouard, president of Google's enterprise group, insists company engineers possess in abundance. "I don't think our Docs team has ever been fundamentally happy with their product," he said. "Google teams are almost inherently unhappy with their products."

Some of that unhappiness has to do with the lingering limitations of browser-based applications. The contentEditable attribute, for example, is a native feature in almost all Web browsers that can be used by Web applications to create rich-text fields. It hasn't really been rich enough, however, because it still falls short of Microsoft Word and page layout programs for advanced formatting functions, particularly in the context of cross-browser consistency.

The company's dissatisfied engineers have to continually confront ways to make their online applications run better. "For Spreadsheets, we were getting to some limits in terms of performance and scaling," conceded engineering director Alan Warren.

For Docs, the issue has been a user interface crisis, because document layout manipulation remains short of the Microsoft Office standard. And adding features has been becoming more difficult. Groups, Sites, and Presentations have faced similar issues.

To overcome these obstacles, Google is actively involved in shaping the emerging HTML5 standard, to make sure Web apps can compete on a level playing field with desktop apps. And it is taking the lessons learned from cutting edge technology such as Google Wave and applying them where applicable to its other services.

Company engineers, for example, have been wrestling with collaborative data models, a particularly vexing programming challenge. The problem has to do with reconciling changes when different users are changing the same file simultaneously. "Collaborative data models are really, really hard to design," said software engineer Micah Lemonik. "I've been working on them almost exclusively for five years." Recently, said Lemonik, "we've finally turned the corner and been able to expose that collaborative data model for any content type."

For Google and its users, that's likely to mean better Web applications. And the Web is what Google is all about. "We view the Web as a platform," said Glotzbach. "We don't view it as a companion to the desktop."

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