As reported earlier on this blog, and on Between The Lines, Google This is more proof that office apps are gradually changing from shrink-wrapped software to web-based services will be releasing a web-based spreadsheet application tomorrow (according to the WSJ that is). Regular readers will know that the Web Office is a hot topic with me and so naturally I've ruminated on a Google Office before. In my Best of Breed Web Office apps post from February, I nominated NumSum and iRows as the best web-based spreadsheet apps on the market at that time. Since then I've come to like JotSpot Tracker very much too. Then in a post from April, I outlined a table of apps that I thought Google would need for a Web Office suite. Under the spreadsheet section, I noted that Google doesn't yet have an app "that we know of" but that here were some contenders:
"There are some great solutions on the open market currently: JotSpot Tracker, NumSum, iRows. Perhaps a Writely-like acquisition is on the cards from Google in this space, unless Google is working on their own app."
Well obviously I covered my bases there, but early speculation was that Google may've bought iRows (incidentally the iRows website is currently down). But Om Malik, the blogger who originally namechecked iRows, has since disclaimed that rumor. Oh well, we'll find out for sure tomorrow.
I also did a post entitled Is Google or Microsoft best positioned for Web Office?. I concluded that Google is best positioned, due to its 'Web-native' engineering abilities and history of innovative web apps such as Gmail and Google Maps. That particular post provoked some great comments from ZDNet readers, my favorite of which was a comment entitled 'The Idea Of Web Office Is About 25 Years Old' - which noted that IBM used to have an internal product called PC Term (obviously not a Web product, but a thin client nonetheless).
Not an Excel Killer! Embrace and Extend...
So what can we expect with Google Spreadsheet? Like Dan Farber, I'm certain it won't be an "Excel killer" (so bloggers please forget those headlines!). The attraction of a web-based spreadsheet is that it enables more collaboration (sharing), it will be interoperable between other web-based office systems (due to web standards like HTML and XML), it will have the ability to subscribe to data and updates (what JotSpot calls 'tracking'), and it will enable mashups of data both from a user's hard drive and the Web.
In fact my interview with JotSpot co-founder and CEO Joe Kraus back in March is very instructive about the benefits of a web-based spreadsheet. It's worth repeating what Kraus told me back then, as it will certainly apply to Google Spreadsheet too. He told me that JotSpot Tracker aimed to "embrace and extend Excel" and offer web capabilities:
"Our goal wasn't just to build Excel online. In fact I believe that Excel will be 'Excel Online'. Microsoft isn't dumb and they get this revolution about 'software as a service' much more than they got the Internet revolution. They're getting it much more quickly. So we believe where Tracker is headed is not only to embrace the capabilities of Excel - you've got to do that. But you've also got to extend it beyond what Excel is currently envisioned as today, in order to provide lasting value. Because otherwise I think you're going to get your lunch eaten, over time as Microsoft rolls in."
As an example of how JotSpot Tracker extends what Excel can do, Joe pointed out that "every row is a wiki page" - by which he meant that each row accommodates rich data types and has things such as version control. In the early reports of Google Spreadsheet, we're getting clues about similar web-native functionality. In a CNET article, a Google product manager is quoted as saying that their spreadsheet "will allow people to view and simultaneously edit data while conducting "in-document" chat".
So in the final analysis, the main benefit of web-based Office products is that they'll extend the functionality of desktop office products in many useful ways. I expect Google Spreadsheet to do all these things, but almost certainly in a beta form to begin with. If this release is like all the other Google betas, the functionality will be a bit clumsy to begin with - but watch closely as they iterate it over time into a very powerful web-based product (like they did with Gmail, etc).
Of course Microsoft will counter with its own web-based spreadsheet, which will almost certainly be a lighter version of Excel. Perhaps this will be added to the Office Live suite, which in its current form bears little resemblance to the full desktop MS Office suite. Microsoft has no choice but to take action, because they have to counter whatever Google does in this space. Probably no company but Google is capable of knocking Microsoft off its Office software pedestal. Microsoft knows full well that office apps are gradually changing from shrink-wrapped software to web-based services, so I expect it to act quickly to Google's spreadsheet (and of course Writely, which Google acquired in March). All this demonstrates once again that the Web is the new platform, on which the big software companies are battling for dominance.