Is Google or Microsoft best positioned for Web Office?

Is Google or Microsoft best positioned for Web Office?

Summary: 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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TOPICS: Microsoft
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goffice.pngMy 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.

Topic: Microsoft

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35 comments
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  • Gmail, Outlook, and Web Office

    Gmail is not on par with Outlook. That nifty technology that reads your emails and give you ads based on their contents might more advanced, but GMail is not competitive with Outlook. It's not competive with Evolution, either.

    Evolution is competitive with Outlook, though.

    Now, can someone please explain to me why I would want a "Web Office?"

    OpenOffice is good an it's free. MS Office is good and it's cheap relative to a professional's salary.
    Erik Engbrecht
  • So we'll just have to wait and see, eh?

    Richard - you keep chugging that Kool-Aid buddy! ;^)

    While all of this conjecture is amusing and diverting it remains purely speculative and I'll guess we'll have to remain vigilant, read the tea leaves, and see how the web office plays out over time.

    I will agree with Erik that comparing Gmail to Outlook is a bad idea. Gmail does one thing in a unique way. Outlook is a total information manager and Google is nowhere close, not even in the same neighborhood, to providing the kind of information aggregation and integartion that Outlook does.

    Evolution is a nice effort but until and unless it works on Windows, it will always be Outlook for *NIX in my mind - one step behind but a great application for those who choose not to use Windows.

    Chandler is another player to keep an eye on as is Mozilla - Lightning shows some promise.
    morchant
    • Total information manager?

      What does that mean? A sawn off single user CRM system?
      Outlook has calendar contacts, email, (fax - hardly used these
      days).
      Gmail/gcalendar have exactly the same capabilities as does
      yahoo and hotmail.

      However if you're talking about Outlook plus Exchange, ok, this
      gives you the ability to make forms, and drop them in viewed
      folders like lotus notes.

      I think Microsoft sharepoint might zap Exchange since it seems
      it will (in the future) allow Office documents to be checked in/
      out into folders, and show the documents in views based on
      fields in the documents.

      I've come across a product that does this right now. The
      amazing www.m-files.com. I've been hunting for a document
      manager for a while. This allows check-in check-out, automatic
      versioning and version history all through windows guis showing
      the M: drive. You can also put metadata into document fields (as
      Sharepoint is going to). No need to upgrade to the next version
      of office though!

      M-Files I think would be good for documentation, you could use
      it for code, validation certificates, but I think you could use it
      pretty much as a full CRM at a stretch.
      Worth checking out since they have a free demo.
      stevey_d
  • Microsoft will fake a web presence

    Microsoft will simply do what Microsoft has always done when faced with innovative competition. It will offer a limp, partially working product at a price that undermines the competition. This product will skim off a large part of the "low" market, while the Office product continues to corner the high/enterprise market because the web product doesn't have the features that those customers want.

    Google will have to figure out the feature set that clearly trumps Microsoft's lame duck and then the price that brings in the customers. Sorry about the mixed metaphors.
    Langalibalene
  • WebOffice, thats what we want....NOT!

    I expect "great" features such as:

    Web-Excel: get javascript errors when entering formulas. Or even better, a floating add gets between you and the cell you want to work with. And don?t get the cell references too complicated, remember Internet Explorer rarely frees any memory.

    Web-Word: accidentally go to the previous website when you hit backspace to erase something. Then, to compensate you hit Forward just to get a stupid message reading "this page has expired". You lost all your work by the way, better luck next time!

    The browser sucks as a platform, bottomline.
    royalstream
    • Javascript errors and forward/back buttons aren't a problem.

      Your complaints are weak. I'll explain why.

      A lot of the world, especially web applications, rely heavily on JavaScript. How many errors have you come across when using Gmail? If the programmer deals with JavaScript in a cross-browser way, which isn't that difficult, you'll only get errors when you have a system problem or the programmer made an error. But these things happen with desktop applications as well.

      Floating ads? What serious web application vendor would offer floating ads over the top of your spreadsheets? That's an implementation problem, not an issue with the fact that it's a web application.

      You're right, IE has a lot of memory management problems. There are many things that application developers can do to make up for that in their code. Anyway, I would never recommend Internet Explorer to anyone. It's terrible software.

      The forward/back button issue is trivial to deal with. I could list off at least five different ways to deal with that.

      None of these things make the browser "suck as a platform". The browser is a great platform, especially considering that not only almost every computer in the world has one, but cellphones and PDAs as well. The browser is everywhere.

      The biggest complaint you are offering is a problem with implementation. I would not consider that a problem with the idea of web applications nor a problem with using the browser as an application platform.
      duswil
      • Your reply is weak too

        You wrote: "You're right, IE has a lot of memory management problems. There are many things that application developers can do to make up for that in their code. Anyway, I would never recommend Internet Explorer to anyone. It's terrible software."

        It also happens to be what 85% of PC users run pal - like it or not. And please, don't even try to convince me or anyone else that Firefox is better at memory management than IE because there is ample evidence to the contrary. Memory leaks have been plaguing Firefox for a long time and especially somce 1.5 was released. Browsers were designed to browse. When you shove too much code at or through them they break - all of them IE. Firefox. Safari. Opera.

        Your whole reply is based on what you [i]could[/i] do, or [i]would[/i] do, or [i]might[/i] do. It's all conjecture. Whereas the behaviors and issues in the comment you replied to are real. They happen all the time in the browser and, despite how simple you think it is to fix them, they're still there.

        So you're either a lot smarter than everyone else - in which case you should be raking in tons of money consulting and coding and not trolling in ZDNet comments - or you're just uttering theories and opinions backed by no empirical evidence or example besides Gmail - which is not a business-class application.
        morchant
      • Dreaming

        Your reply has already been dealt with adequately, but as for Gmail. Yes I get errors all the time. SOmetimes my inbox won't appear, sometime I get the message that I should wait a few minutes because gmail is unavailable and a variety of other annoyances. I like Gmail, I use it, but not for business and yes it's interface, like the browser as a platform, SUCKS.
        TonyMcS
      • Javascript ...

        .. sucks, it?s interpreted and slow.
        Javascript will never ever outperform a native-code application like Excel doing intensive numeric calculations, unless you intend to do them at the server which also makes them slow if you have to transmit huge amounts of data.
        Now, if they come up with an alternative way of performing computations at the client (WPF/E maybe?) then things could change.
        royalstream
  • Back to the 60s we go?

    I'm amused by the irony of this all - the web was born to allow distributing information and distributed processing so we're going to all go back to the days of (what are in essence) mainframes and centralized data storage?

    And you think this is a good idea?
    CWButler
    • Not quite back to the 60s.

      Centralized data storage? Yes. Mainframes? No. The ubiquity of computing (home laptop, work computer, coffee shop kiosk, smartphones, etc.) has escalated the need to access data anywhere. But the big difference is that the only reason these web office applications work is because of powerful (relatively speaking) client machines. The Web 2.0 assumes a lot of the data manipulation is done on the client and only the resulting work product is sent back to the server for storage. This is a fine point, but is a fundamental difference between the dumb terminals and mainframes of yesteryear. Centralized data storage is only bad if you can?t get to it when you need to (see mainframes model), but is perfect when you have access to the data from everywhere.
      january26
      • diskless PC's, thin-client computing, were you asleep?

        did you miss this cycle?

        Same thing - different name, different technology but the emperor still has no clothes.

        Centralized computing dependent upon massive large-scale infrastructure is a re-curring theme in the computing cycle.

        it's a sine wave cycle and the current web 2.0 hype is just another inflection point before things return back to the real power if distbuted, not centralized, computing.
        spiv
  • Once again

    Hype, hype, hype.

    Another solution in search of a problem.

    Another time to ignore the problems of reliability, connection, net load, server load and failure, security, others controlling your data and all your eggs in one basket.

    I agree - it's back to the 60s - can't have those users with their own apps and data.
    TonyMcS
    • Bingo! We have a winner!

      ---Another solution in search of a problem.---

      The exact phrase I was going to use. This is nothing more than the flavor of the month, a clever idea that no one asked for, other than the companies looking to sell it. An idea that creates more problems than it solves, and one for which there's no customer demand.

      Gee, can we get equally excited about buying music downloads on our phones?
      tic swayback
    • Bingo - can't have freedom.

      Eggs in one basket.

      And it's a Microsoft Basket, so their terminal services software will unwittingly be a haven for scores of hackers...

      I'm breakin' out the popcorn... who needs tv these days? What's funny isn't about what the writers of South Park do...
      HypnoToad72
  • The Application Still Rules and, that's why...

    ...Microsoft has the leg up on Google. Word, Excel, Access, Powerpoint, Project, Great Plains Accounting, and on and on.

    The path to putting EXISTING applications online has GOT to be easier than NOT HAVING THE APPLICATIONS, ala Google, to put online!

    Online, however, will work for the following users, only:

    1. SMB Accounting - multi-users from multi-locations, instant cash flow, Statement of Position, Balance Sheet, P&L, no hardware and backup concerns, CEO gets an instant dashboard.

    2. Local School Districts - teaching lower income kids how to use Wordline, Exceline, Accessline, PowerPointLine. When they go home at night to write that paper, they can do it all...online with no program licensing costs and lotsa chunks of online help!

    3. Babyboomers - who never wanted to learn Word etc. but will find multiple-levels of Word etc. with tremendous task-sensitive tutorials...all online!

    4. High School/College Students who would rather fire up Word, Excel, etc. and get a powerful subset of Word, Excel, etc., to perform the particular task at hand; e.g. - footnoting, outlining, re-format, Pivot Table.

    5. Adults who don't want to learn or don't have the money for the existing apps - Online will be cheap and the learning curve will be small DUE TO EXCELLENT, MULTI-LEVEL TUTORIALS, downloaded at the touch of a button.

    6. Hurry, Google, you're way behind!

    Ray Myers
    rayted32
  • Nobody CARES!!!

    The simple facts ARE... Nobody wants web based programs! The web is not the answer for everything. Get over it. I don't want them, I can't name a single peer in this industry outside of those involved in a project for it or the IT media that wants them or even talks favorably about them and I don't have a single customer that is even remotely interested in them. That's the facts. The reasons are MANY. We don't want ANY web based programing that replaces standard applications like word processing, spreadsheet, etc. and the sooner the industry gets it the more we can move on. The future is not with everything web based.
    bumberfsck
    • You are wrong. Quite the contrary... too many people DO want them.

      Why have PCs or servers for people to administer?

      Just buy enough bandwidth and host everything. And that's a truckload of bandwidth too. And clusters of PCs... and subscription licensing, which is tantamount to extortion. Money for nothing and the chicks' for free...

      Just make sure the transmission medium doesn't fail... pity it's all mass-made in China...

      If the masses knew what the frig "terminal services" are, and the implications, most of them wouldn't want it either.
      HypnoToad72
      • Sorry, but I would rather not be in the situation where

        my ISP has gone fubar and I suddenly do not have any access to my documents (and that happens quite frequently).
        There maybe some call for web based apps, but I really cannot see Web Office being one of them - in fact there is more likelihood of the paperless office first ;-)

        Google should stick to what they are good at, providing information via the Internet.
        Scrat
  • Some factual errors and some misunderstandings

    Hi Richard - I enjoyed reading your posting but I see several problems with your article both in terms of factual accuracy as well as interpretation.

    1. You say (in bold) that Microsoft is "not a Web-native company at its heart (true), it's a software company (true) which is learning to to compete on the Web platform because it has too (again in bold). Microsoft *is* a software company at heart but you seem to misunderstand that Web-based applications are (tada!) software. The Web is just a different platform and delivery mechanism for software. In some scenarios, getting software via the Web works great for users - think Web-based email or photo sharing as good examples. In other scenarios like office productivity applications, the Web is probably not the best platform. Regardless, applications like Gmail or Flikr are software. They just happen to use the Web as a platform and delivery vehicle. I'd also add that Microsoft has been offering Web-based services for longer than Google has existed. There are lots of examples including Hotmail (acquired in the late 90's?), Passport as well as content services like Encarta and others. I'd also add that Microsoft isn't "learning to compete on the Web platform because it has to." They competing on the Web platform because their customers want it and because there's business opportunity.

    2. You also state that "all of the (Google) products it releases are Web-native." Not true. Google has many PC client applications including Google Desktop, Google Deskbar, Google Earth Picasa, and, lest we forget, the highly praised(not) Google Pack. While some of these products have hooks to Web-based services they're native client applications.

    3. You go on to posit your "main point" with even less credibility, that "Google is best positioned to build a Web Office suite." I see several problems with this statement. You pointed out yourself that the Web office suite is a long-term proposition. I would argue that, while all office productivity applications will include/use Web-based components and services, it is rediculous to think that there will ever be significant user demand (particularly in corporations) for 100% Web native versions of office productivity applications. There are many many reasons for this but I'll just point out the most obvious. Web applications are good in many ways - they are often easy to use, there's little or no updating necessary b/c the code resides on a server somewhere and they're available anywhere you have a Web connection. But Web applications have big downsides. Perhaps the biggest is that they don't take advantage of PC/device processing power. There are literally billions of computing devices in the world today including probably close to a billion PC's and many more phones. All PC's and increasingly more phones have significant processing power...powerful CPU's, graphics capabilities, local storage etc. To suggest that application developers should just ignore the power of these "end node" devices is silly. Google may eventually have millions of powerful servers offering up lots of great Web-based services but that will never entirely replace the power on the client. In addition, although connectivity will eventually become ALMOST "always on," I'm highly skeptical that connectivity will ever be 100% reliable. Will a company or even many individuals ever be willing to risk losing ANY ability to do computing tasks if their connectivity goes down? I, for one, think that the software of the future can offer the best of both worlds where you have client side code when it makes sense and Web-based code and services that complement the client. The day that users have the the functionality that Microsoft offers today in Office in a pure Web-based form is the day I eat my hat. And yours. It simply won't happen.


    4. You close out by talking a lot about Gmail. Gmail is interesting. Lots of people have played around with it. But really, how often do you get email from people using Gmail accounts? Try this. Next time you're in a room with a lot of people, ask the following questions. First, how many of you have Gmail accounts? Most will raise their hands. Then ask how many are still using them? Most will not raise there hands. Why is this? Because Gmail, while being kinda nifty for a Web-based email service, pales in comparison to a full blown client side application for Windows or Mac. You say that "Gmail is in the same class of interface and functionality as Outlook" but I disagree. AJAX is a neat trick (which many would argue that Microsoft invented with DHTML) but it doesn't come close to offering the rich user experience that a PC client application offers. Here's a great way to demonstrate this. Open up your Gmail account and create some folders for categories of email that you like to save. Oh wait, can't do that with Gmail... Ok, assume you could, then show me how you'd drag and drop emails from your Inbox to one of those folders? Oh, right...can't do that either. Now show me how you can open up a "Open Office" document that's on your PC and right-click to send as an attachment using your Gmail account. Oh right, can't do that. Then show me how you can embed an Excel spreadsheet into a Gmail and then send it to yourself. Does the Excel spreadsheet maintain its formatting? Can you easily copy it back into Excel and edit it? Does Gmail support anything remotely like OLE? Answers are all no. This isn't to say that Gmail isn't sort of cool. I like the search capability (although one has to wonder about privacy...). The UI is pretty slick for AJAX. But ultimately AJAX is almost as overhyped as...well, Google. Just wait until lots of developers who are less skilled than those at Google start building AJAX-style applications and you'll see what I mean. They're brittle, difficult to update and very very hard to write. Tools will improve but AJAX style apps will never come close to delivering the high quality experience that users get with native apps for Mac, Windows or even Flash-based apps.

    Gotta get back to work but...better luck next time with your analysis.
    marksashton