Spreadsheets were the shock troops that started the last great revolution. VisiCalc on the Apple II proved the worth of the personal computer and started the decline of the empire of the mainframes. That's not the case now: while Google Spreadsheets — not even in public beta yet, remember — should be a better collaborative tool than full-blown Excel, it is at best an experiment in applying ideas that are well known and available elsewhere.
Far from being another push towards Microsoft's home ground, it's quite the opposite. Google Spreadsheets illustrates fundamental problems in the company's current business model. It says to users, "give us your data and we'll show you interesting things;" to advertisers, "give us your money and we'll show you to interesting users." However, spreadsheet data is rarely the sort of information that people are comfortable letting out of the house, let alone into the hands of a commercial organisation with whom they have no formal business connection.
A remotely hosted collaborative spreadsheet may be a fantastic idea, if you're confident your data is never at risk. That means decent encryption during transfer and proper security when in storage at the far end. Hard to fit in with the idea that Google's advertising engines will be crunching your numbers while looking for wrinkles to flog — and hard to pass through the sort of end-to-end audit that companies need in order to be confident of regulatory compliance.
Which is good news. It means that Google is telling the truth when it says it's not going after the Office market. And it means that when Google keeps its products in eternal beta it's because no, they're really not ready to make money for the company in their current form, and that it's still experimenting with what's possible, what's plausible and what's actually going to work. These are not signs of corporate sclerosis.
For those addicted to scouring Google's output for clues to the future shape of IT, we recommend looking at things like the work it's done in porting Picasa to Linux, creating what could turn out to be a very effective cross-platform client-side strategy to match its more famous Web services skills. That's going to be far more interesting in the long term than another stripped-down online spreadsheet — and a better way of making the numbers really add up.