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The Future of Google Docs

Docs has become a worthy competitor to Microsoft Office, but its future will rely less on feature parity and more on the value being added to Google's platform in the cloud.

When I went to Google's office in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday to meet Jonathan Rochelle, director of product management for Google Docs, I brought my MacBook Pro from home to take notes.

When I arrived at InformationWeek's office later that morning, survived my IBM ThinkPad's epic start-up process, and launched Google Chrome, my notes were waiting for me in Google Docs.

This is an example of one of the reasons that cloud computing has taken off: Files can be accessed from any Web-connected device. You no longer have to e-mail files to yourself, which I used to do a lot.

Rochelle is proud of how far Google Docs has come. He readily concedes that prior to a major re-engineering effort last April, Google's online productivity software had a lot of drawbacks. But with the reworked collaborative editing capabilities and a variety of recent added features, he states confidently that Docs is a viable business product.

Despite the fact that it's available for free, "it's really a product that's worth paying for," said Rochelle. "It's not just cool. It's useful." (There's also a paid version, which may be more appropriate for businesses.)

Schools and companies, in particular, he said, are enthusiastic about Google Docs. "We're getting unbelievable uptake in the enterprise," he said, noting that companies that would have never considered Google's online apps two years ago have become converts.

It used to be that companies considering a move to the cloud began by piloting Gmail and Calendar. Now, says, Rochelle, "We have customers who are signing up very specifically for Apps, and not Gmail."

While any product manager might be expected to say that about his or her product, Rochelle's assertion that the tentative exploration of the cloud has become a more enthusiastic migration mirrors my own experience.

A year ago, I began switching back and forth between Google Docs and Microsoft Word to write articles. Early on in my experiment, I ended up using Microsoft Word more often, having used it more or less continuously since it was first introduced for the Mac in the mid-1980s.

But since mid-2010, with the addition of features like the ability to disable smart quotes, I have been relying almost exclusively on Google Docs for my word processing needs. The only exception has been at conferences where WiFi connectivity isn't available or is unreliable.

"This is a historic platform shift," insists Rochelle, referring to the migration away from locally installed software to cloud-based services. "We've all personally moved to the Web, but companies haven't necessarily done that. And now they are. It reminds me of the massive shift to client-server. It was a massive change and it was painful. The key differentiator of that shift and this one is that users are demanding it."

I asked Rochelle about whether the shift is really as pronounced as he suggests. Many of the companies testing Google Docs that I've talked to have maintained legacy on-premises systems. He concedes that has been a common approach but maintains that more companies now are leaving the old ways behind.

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