Can Microsoft change 'gears' for the sea-change ahead?

Summary:For the last year, I have endured ridicule, insults, and criticism for talking about the potential of a well-funded competitor like Google, let alone the collective potential of countless other smaller innovators, to prove the viability (and even the supremacy) of Web-based applications over their 'locally run' competition such as Microsoft Office. The so-called 'offline problem' (the one where the apps and data become unavailable do to loss of connectivity..

For the last year, I have endured ridicule, insults, and criticism for talking about the potential of a well-funded competitor like Google, let alone the collective potential of countless other smaller innovators, to prove the viability (and even the supremacy) of Web-based applications over their 'locally run' competition such as Microsoft Office. The so-called 'offline problem' (the one where the apps and data become unavailable do to loss of connectivity.. be it happenstance or because you're just somewhere like a plane where connectivity doesn't exist) has invariably been the sanctuary for these critics.

During that time, I have drawn attention to the work being done with JavaDB and Derby as examples of how the offline problem might get solved. But, ultimately, I have routinely said that when the problem gets solved, it will get solved by Google. Last week, with Google's announcement of Google Gears, that day came.

To be clear, Google Gears is pure beta right now. Google has said as much and it's not like all the Web apps out there including Google's are suddenly able to work offline. They're not. In fact, only one Google application -- a prime candidate at that: Google Reader -- gets to try out the new Gears first. But others, including Web apps from third parties are certain to follow. Google Gears is targeted directly at the developers of those apps and to the extent that they embrace Gears for their own offerings and find it (them?) to be sorely lacking, the technology's open source nature means that those developers are free to join the "Gears" community in an effort to collectively overcome those shortcomings.

Google is proving to the naysayers that they can run, but they can't hide. For the last year, the reason it wouldn't work was the offline problem. With a huge chunk now removed from that barrier (the rest, just as important, will be chipped away over time), the critics will no doubt seek sanctuary (or is it ill-found comfort) in the other advantages that some desktop applications currently enjoy over their online counterparts. The security one (of storing sensitive data outside the firewall) is another routine comeback (just tell that to Marc Benioff, personal custodian of customer data, aka life-blood, to some of the world's largest enterprises).

In fairness to desktop software providers, the Web apps whose desktop-like interactivity is often driven by the AJAX style of Javascript programming often lack the performance and grace of their long entrenched desktop competitors. That said, let's not forget that the incumbent desktop applications (including spreadsheets) got a 25-year head start. If you're judging the future of Web apps on the basis of their inability to ameliorate that head start out of the gate, you're just not thinking very clearly. Look at how rapidly the gap has closed in just a couple of years. To suggest that Web apps can't close the gaps that remain is mad. It's just a matter of time.

I'm not done yet.

In last week's report on Google Gears, I wrote "companies such as Microsoft may have their hands forced in terms of reconsidering everything from the architecture behind their existing solutions portfolios to the licensing costs for those solutions." What did I mean by that?

As much as I was sure that Google was going to be the company that solved the offline problem, Microsoft no doubt has its own Web apps near their battle stations. That's my educated guess. If it doesn't, then the proverbial "train from Redmond" that for two decades caused other software companies to shudder in their boots will end up in a trainwreck. Right now, some number of you are saying Microsoft? Trainwreck? What is Berlind smoking? (or what stock does he own?). But this isn't just about the ever closing functionality gap between Web apps and desktop apps. It's about Google's entirely different way of dealing with an organization's information technology needs.

Hear me out on this.

For decades, we've been taught by the vendor community that we should compartmentalize our business thinking into categories that map well to their categories of solutions. While I'd rather not single out Microsoft, it's really the classic example. If you need to create and print different kinds of documents (what business doesn't?), you get something like Microsoft Office. If you want to collaborate with others over those documents (what business doesn't?), you buy or subscribe to a Sharepoint server. If you need a Web presence (what business doesn't?), you set up a Web server (or find someone else who will host it for you). Microsoft would prefer this be its Internet Information Services server.

If you're someone who runs a business, before you know it, you're managing all sorts of products running on all sorts of operating systems (desktop and server). With weekly security updates, annual service packs, less frequent upgrades, all sorts of crazy showstoppers that turn into mini-sink holes of time and money, vendors will tell you it's not nearly the management and expense nightmare that it really is, especially if you buy into their management solutions. Yes, so complex are the "on-premises" solutions that you have to buy other management products just to keep the infrastructure from having a heart attack.

Are we incapable of looking in from the outside and asking if there's a better way?

Google has clearly asked this question. Google Apps as a bundle of applications may be immature, but it's unquestionably a stake in the ground: one that says there's a better way to think about information technology provisioning and use. Take collaboration over a spreadsheet for example. In the Google App world, the way you collaborate with others over a spreadsheet is, you go to your browser, open the spreadsheet, click on share and invite collaborators by their e-mail addresses. Within seconds, two or more collaborators can not only be looking at the same spreadsheet you are, but doing so in a fashion where, as the contents of the cells are being changed by one collaborator, the others are seeing those changes on their screens only seconds later. It's very slick, if you haven't seen it.

"So what" you say? "David, that story has been written so many times." Sure. The cool functionality of Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets has been chronicled to death. But let's look at it in terms of friction and business. Whereas the prerequisite to reaching a collaborative state with others in the Google Apps world is a browser (just about any browser, on any device will do), just try to reach that same collaborative state in the Microsoft world. Relatively speaking, that prerequisite is like a playbook with the word "FRICTION" plastered on the front.

It's not that Microsoft's solutions don't get the job done, or that they haven't gotten the job done better than others for the last decade. It's just that with many incremental improvements (the ability to collaborate for example) came a non-incremental increase in friction to make it work. Meanwhile, Google went in completely the opposite direction. For example, for any business or organization starting from scratch, there's less friction involved in running a Google-based spreadsheet that involves collaboration than there is in running a desktop spreadsheet that doesn't. That's not just a benchmark. It's a tea leaf.

What it has done in terms of taking the friction out of collaborative productivity applications barely scratches the surface when it comes to how Google is thinking about the frictionless provisioning and usage of information technology as a whole.

Let's throw Web site hosting into the mix. Whenever I'm talking about Google Apps with others not familiar with the offering, they are stunned to learn that it includes Web site hosting for no additional cost (bear in mind, in the case of the standard edition of Google Apps, there's no initial cost either: it's free). Going back to the basic needs of any business, running a Web site ranks right up there with being able to create and collaborate over documents.

In the Google world, Web site hosting is just something that organizations (businesses, non-profits, even families) fundamentally need and that should be both provisioned and integrated with the rest of the IT utility. This is strikingly different from the shrink-wrapped software approach where you buy one solution for one set of problems (documents) and another solution for another set of problems (Web site hosting) and so on and so on.

Not grokking this yet? You want to talk about friction? Let's talk about e-mail. How many business owners do you know that derive great pleasure out of running their own e-mail systems. In the same fashion that Google has taken the friction out of getting up and running with collaborative documents and Web site hosting (one day, I'm sure the two will be frictionlessly integral to each other), Google will also let you run your e-mail domain on top of its GMail service. Here, Google could do more to make it easier to set up. But part of the problem is that a third party -- your domain registrar -- must get involved and, provided you're using a reputable registrar, only you can muck around with your domain settings (not always for the weak at heart).

Can GMail suffice as a Microsoft Exchange replacement for everybody? Doubtful. A lot of companies for example can't fathom the idea of their e-mail systems being outside the corporate firewall. But more importantly, it's not about how GMail as an e-mail server service compares to Exchange. It's once again how Google is thinking when it comes to providing information technology to businesses as though it were one single utility and not a bunch of discreetly separate SKUs. The more I share this observation with business owners, the more I see heads nodding up and down as though they're saying "Finally! It sounds like someone understands my pain."

In fact, some of the people to whom I've described this approach begin to fantasize that all the time they spend wrestling with their technology (a part of which involves figuring out what solutions to buy to solve what problems) could be spent on making their businesses successful instead. Novel idea, isn't it?

Down the road, my expectation is that the portfolio of services that get wrapped into Google Apps will not only grow, but grow with the idea of addressing real pain points. For example, it's not hard to imagine Google's PayPal-like Checkout service joining the Google Apps portfolio in a way that makes child's play out of selling product and transacting through a Google hosted-Web site (using Web pages that were built and published directly out of Google Docs).

Lest you think this is a story about how Google will trounce Microsoft, it isn't that at all. There are other smaller companies out there who have or will soon be breaking the pain point code too. They grok the idea that customers shouldn't have to buy one product to do X and another to do Y and that from one "solution" to the next, it's a continuum rather than a set of shrink-wrapped boundaries that can only be crossed through purchasing and integration.

Meanwhile, while Microsoft's legacy -- largely defined by the very shrink-wrapped boundaries that Google and others are breaking down -- may appear to be the proverbial noose around the neck that could impede that company's ability to participate in a differently structured world, let's not forget that we're still talking about Microsoft. With billions of dollars in cash, some of the best talent on the planet, and an heir to the throne (Ray Ozzie) that understands the new world as well (if not better) as anybody, betting on Microsoft's ability to change gears when it has to is a pretty sure bet.

Topics: Apps, Browser, Collaboration, Google, Hardware, Microsoft, Software

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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