Is Google or Microsoft best positioned for Web Office?

My previous post in which I claimed that Google Calendar was further evidence of a future online office suite from Google, provoked some interesting reactions. Fellow ZDNet blogger Marc Orchant thinks I've been drinking some koolaid -- but if I have it's my own brand of koolaid, because I don't see either Google or Microsoft hyping a Web Office.

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My previous post in which I claimed that Google Calendar was further evidence of a future online office suite from Google, provoked some interesting reactions. Fellow ZDNet blogger Marc Orchant thinks I've been drinking some koolaid -- but if I have it's my own brand of koolaid, because I don't see either Google or Microsoft hyping a Web Office. But more to the point, Marc reckons it's Microsoft which is best positioned to dominate in a future Web Office "game". Marc first commented on my post, then wrote a new blog post outlining his theory:

"The migration to a web office will be slow and possibly never complete for many. So Microsoft, with their entrenched base, is actually in the best position to leverage that base as they migrate key functionality from the fat clients we use today to the lightweight web tools that are today in the chipped flint state of technical evolution.

Google will be a viable alternative for the ABM crowd and Mac and *NIX folk and will hopefully be to the web office space what Firefox is to the browser space - a serious competitor that keeps Microsoft from getting lazy and complacent (again)."

I see where Marc is coming from in regards to Microsoft, but I think he's dead wrong about Google. Allow me to explain...

Google, as the biggest Web-native company in the world, is best positioned to build a Web Office suiteMicrosoft will indeed defend its Office turf vigorously and they have considerable leverage with their current desktop product. It's tough going killing an 800-pound gorilla. Microsoft is also moving relatively fast these days to keep up to speed with its web-based competition, as evidenced by their Windows Live strategy and a growing (but still beta quality) set of Live products. But Microsoft is not a Web-native company at its heart, it's a software company which is learning to compete on the Web platform because it has to.

Microsoft's rallying cry on the Web is 'software as a service' - and that term betrays the fact that Microsoft is dealing with the Web on its own terms. Software is still paramount with them, not the Web.

Google on the other hand was born on the Web and all of the products it releases are Web-native. My basic Web Office premise is that office software will slowly but surely migrate to the Web. I must re-emphasize that I don't think this will happen in the short-term or even medium-term. The Web Office is a long-term proposition. It'll only happen once core infrastructural and cultural issues - like connectivity, security and plain old office politics - have been 'solved'. Clearly there's a lot of work to do before we reach that point. Nevertheless, the Web Office will gradually evolve over time. Perhaps 5-10 years, perhaps longer.

My main point is to say that Google, as the biggest Web-native company in the world, is best positioned to build a Web Office suite. They understand, far better than Microsoft ever will, how to build Web products. It's difficult to put into words actually, but compare for a moment Gmail with other web-based email services. Gmail was released two years ago and other email systems still haven't caught up to it. Google literally re-thought email and created something completely native to the Web. As Gmail Engineer Paul Buchheit said last year:

"We didn't want to simply bolt new features onto old interfaces. We needed to rethink email..."

Gmail is in the same class of functionality as Outlook, Microsoft's desktop office email product. Which isn't to say that it has as many features -- no, no, that's not how I think about this. But Gmail is in the same class of interface and functionality as Outlook. And what makes it a great product is its Web-native features such as the ability to check your email from multiple computers, conversation threading, web-like search, integration with Google Calendar (nascent now, but will expand) and in general being a platform for all kinds of Web functionality.

So just as Gmail was an outstanding attempt at introducing new concepts to Web email, I fully expect Google to do the same for other office products. They will make them Web-native. OK it's perhaps a leap of faith for me to say that by having better products, Google will usurp Microsoft Office. But then, didn't Microsoft usurp IBM once with a product line that was native to PCs rather than mainframes? I'm a big believer that building products that are native to their platform will win out over time. Perhaps I'm an optimist though.

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