Does Google Apps compete with Microsoft Office? - InformationWeek
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Does Google Apps compete with Microsoft Office?

Last week Google confirmed rumors they are planning to add an online presentation capability to Google Docs and Spreadsheets. During an on stage interview at the Web 2.0 Expo, Google CEO Eric Schmidt announced active development of the new feature. Rumors started in February when enthusiasts found references to “Presently” while combing through the Docs and Spreadsheets Javascript that gets downloaded to browsers.

During the interview Battelle said this “completes what most people call an office suite” and asked Schmidt if Google Apps is now a competitor to Microsoft Office. Schmidt responded by saying they do not intended to have all of the functionality of Microsoft Office but to provide something different. He went on to say this is a “different way of managing information” and is a “better fit for how people are using the web”. He also described it as a transition from an “older architecture to this web-based architecture”. In a two minute period Schmidt summed up a major transition that is taking place on the Internet and is making its way into corporate intranets.

In my opinion, Google can make a pretty good argument they are not directly competing with Microsoft Office. They are offering something very different but familiar. Of course, I expect Microsoft strategists will see this through their Office glasses and eventually try to respond by extending the Office suite. In my opinion, the difference between Google Docs and Microsoft Office is the difference between working within the web versus using the Internet for the distribution of files. This may be the most significant change in how people use the Internet since your neighbor first sent you an email from AOL.

The challenge Google, and others like Zoho, face is in getting users to see how this approach is better. But Google is slowly making progress. Almost a year ago I switched to using Gmail as my exclusive email provider for home use. Before that I would have never dreamt of using web-based mail. But now I cannot imagine the opposite. Aside from the basics, like capturing more spam that any solution I have tried (btw, I haven’t changed my email address for ten years so spam chases me constantly), I most like how Gmail handles file attachments.

First, some background. I work with a local youth baseball and softball association. One of our many initiatives to improve communication with our parents is the publishing of league information (schedules, game results, standings, directions to fields, etc.) on the Internet. Fortunately, we came across League Lineup, a feature-rich but inexpensive solution run by a very responsive team. Getting all of our schedules published is not as easy as I would like but we get by with some Excel spreadsheet templates that league directors fill out. These are eventually converted to CSV (comma separate value) files that get uploaded to League Lineup.

As a result of spring finally arriving here in the Midwest league directors are now sending me Excel spreadsheets with schedules to be uploaded. Gmail’s rendering of spreadsheets has come in very handy when receiving these documents.

In case you haven’t seen this feature, Gmail shows an attachment accompanied with three links: “View as HTML”, “Open as a Google Spreadsheet”, and “Download”. I have learned to understand and cope with the performance of each of these choices. “View as HTML” is wicked fast. I use it when I simply need to read the attachment quickly. “Open as Google Spreadsheet” takes a little longer but the information is usually presented quite fast and I am able to do some simple spreadsheet functions.

But, I have come to consider clicking the “Download” link (which downloads and opens the file in Excel) with some trepidation. To me, the “Download” link is best described as the “Let’s wait for the disk light to turn off” link. It is irritatingly slower than the other choices. The point I am trying to make here is there are many scenarios in which I prefer to see information show up in a browser quickly rather than a rich client application.

In many ways these three links represent the changed user experiences we are seeing as a result of Web 2.0. Some of you might point to Microsoft’s Excel Services for SharePoint as a move to this new model. However, this product only provides a read-only representation of a spreadsheet in a browser (to be fair, it is an incredibly accurate representation though). To collaborate on the spreadsheet you need to use traditional file sharing methods. The source for the data shown in Excel Services is an Excel file sitting in the SharePoint site. In my opinion, Excel services is pretty good for what it does but is just a step or two beyond a web-based Excel viewer.

So does this mean the end of client applications? Not at all, but I think their focus will have to change. In my opinion, a rich client application should extend a web experience, not the other way around (embrace and extend, but from a different perspective). I would not be surprised to see Google offer downloadable software that extends the Windows Explorer or browser user interfaces with Google Apps features. In some respects this is already happening. For example, Google Desktop indexes Gmail and Zoho Office offers some convenient client-side features as well.

What do you think?

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