Online Office: Microsoft keeps promising while Google delivers

No one really expected Microsoft to completely abandon the idea of desktop software, did they? Today, at the Professional Developers Conference, the company announced that it will be rolling out “Office Web applications,” basically calling it “lightweight versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

No one really expected Microsoft to completely abandon the idea of desktop software, did they? Today, at the Professional Developers Conference, the company announced that it will be rolling out “Office Web applications,” basically calling it “lightweight versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote."

I have no problem with Microsoft wanting to hang on to the old school suite of Office software or even trying to connect it with an online version. But why is it that the Web versions of these popular programs have to be "lightweight?" Why can't there just be a comparable Web version of the products?

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, in an executive e-mail sent to subscribers this afternoon (and re-posted on TechCrunch), made a strong case for Microsoft's push into cloud applications and seemed to understand the need for these sorts of applications on the Web. But at one point, it struck me that this was less about products and features and more about Microsoft retaining control over the game it invented. Desktop software is the company's bread and butter and there's no way the company was just going to drop it for a Web product. Still, does it do anyone any good to pretend that these sort of apps don't already exist on the Web? Consider this excerpt from Ballmer's email:

Today, some things that our intuition says should be simple still remain difficult, if not impossible. Why can’t we easily access the documents we create at work on our home PCs? Why isn’t all of the information that customers share with us available instantly in a single application? Why can’t we create calendars that automatically merge our schedules at work and home?

Um, Mr. Ballmer... We can do those things already with a suite of free online software offered by a company called Google. Perhaps you've heard of them.

When I write a document or create a spreadsheet at work - even if I do it in Word or Excel - I can easily save it in Google Docs and re-open it (again, in Word or Excel if I so choose) from the machine at home. Likewise, through Google Calendar, not only am I managing my work and personal calendars, but my wife and I also share a family calendar that helps us track the kids' appointments - things like dentist appointments, after school sports and Saturday birthday parties.

I've met with the Google folks a few times and one of the big advantages they keep talking about as it relates to the cloud is the ability to make upgrades, add tools and otherwise enhance the services on-the-fly, instead of waiting for a new version to be released next quarter or next year.

Speaking of which, when might we be getting a taste of Office Web Applications? My colleague Mary-Jo Foley, in her blog post, notes that OWA will be rolled out as part of Office 14, the newest version of Office, which doesn't yet have a release date. Foley says it could be out as early as the latter part of 2009 (for those of you keeping track, that's 12 months from now.) Foley also mentioned that she's hearing some rumblings that 2010 might be a more realistic target.

Sigh. It's one of my biggest beefs with Microsoft - big splashy announcements for something that won't be out for months (or years.) Do you know how many changes and upgrades Google could launch in that time or how many Office users could defect to Google Apps? If this were Apple, the company would be making it available as Steve Jobs stands on stage to announce it. If it were Google, they would have flipped the switch a few days ago and announced it via a blog post this morning.

Instead, with Microsoft, we get "coming soon" but no specific date.

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