Office 2010: Can it beat Google Docs at its own game?

Office 2010, combined with Sharepoint 2010, is a powerful collaboration platform. But is it powerful enough to beat Google Docs even though it's drastically more expensive?

Although it was hard not to be enthusiastic about some of the Office and SharePoint features unveiled at Wednesday's Office 2010 launch, I had to wonder how much of what was unveiled was just a pretty, expensive face on Google Docs. I also had to wonder if that pretty face was enough to beat Google Docs at its own collaborative game.

As Janice Kapner, Microsoft's Senior Director of Information Worker Product Management, noted when we spoke after the launch, the word "collaboration" means different things to different people. From my perspective, Google had the market cornered on collaboration for quite a while, though, allowing for the simultaneous creation of content in their Docs products. For the low, low price of $50/user/year (or for free if you were an educator or were willing to sacrifice some features), Google Apps subscribers could share and create everything from websites to presentations to spreadsheets together, regardless of their physical location.

Sure, the documents might not be the most beautiful creations unveiled to mankind, but they could genuinely be team efforts without complicated commenting and versioning, emailing, and reconciling. Other people, as Ms. Kapner noted, viewed collaboration in the context of social and communication mechanisms. While Google wasn't Facebook, it certainly bundled enough powerful, fast communication tools with Apps that businesses could tap this aspect of collaboration quite handily as well.

Microsoft had introduced SharePoint a while back, improving document management and sharing capabilities within Microsoft-centric organizations, but the real time capabilities that Google could offer just weren't there. Where Apps lived and breathed the connected Web for organizations that adopted it, Office and its approach to collaboration (however you want to define it) among information workers felt decidedly pre-Facebook.

That feeling changed, however, on Wednesday. Office 2010 combined with SharePoint 2010 is such a polished, powerful platform that it feels like it's leapt ahead of Google Docs in collaborative potential. But was that just marketing spin and a great presentation at NBC Studios? After all, when the presenters noted that they could finally simultaneously edit documents using the features of SharePoint, I couldn't help but wonder just how long that had been possible in Google Docs. Later, I tweeted

Speaker from KPN is talking about the idea of workspace so workers to [sic] do their jobs anytime anywhere. Sounds like Apps :)

As the presenters demoed Outlook 2010, it was like deja vu all over again:

Outlook now supports conversations. I think Gmail has been doing that for a while. Like since its inception.

So was Microsoft introducing anything particularly new in the 2010 products or were they just putting a better UI on old Google features? As it turns out, I think it was a bit of both. To some extent, Office 2010 takes the best collaborative features of Google Docs, combines them with an improved Office look and feel, and even manages to render them on the Web and Windows Mobile smartphones with incredible fidelity. Not new, but pretty and highly usable.

On the other hand, the social layer introduced by SharePoint out of the box gives organizations an immediate in-house social network that can rival anything Facebook has to offer. The Office suite itself provides everything from extraordinary data mining and business intelligence capabilities natively within Excel to social networking and noise reduction features in Outlook that don't exist anywhere else in terms of productivity software (in the cloud or on the desktop).

The trouble comes when trying to really assess the value proposition in the Microsoft vs. Google war. Google gives you everything it has with frequent updates to features and service for $50/user/year. SharePoint Online (Microsoft's hosted version of SharePoint and the only product for which enterprise pricing is published) starts at $63/user/year and this doesn't even include the initial cost of Office licensing. Microsoft cited Forrester research suggesting extraordinary returns on investment due to increased productivity from Office/SharePoint 2010 adopters, but the initial costs (particularly if organizations look to deploy SharePoint internally instead of using Microsoft's hosted service) are tough to ignore.

In the end, as always, organizations must fully understand their needs if they want to invest in the right platform. However, while I think that ZDNet's Zack Whittaker is wrong when he says that Google Docs no longer stands a chance, Google is suddenly the one playing catchup to some powerful and compelling features in Microsoft's 2010 offerings.

So, um, Google...Got any plans for that Apps-integrated social network I was talking about?