Spread thin, spread fast

Google's challenge to Microsoft, if it is one, is too tentative to change the world.

This is a test, a limited test, of the Google disruption broadcast system. This is only a test. An interesting test,Web-based productivity apps can exist beyond the desktop, but these spreadsheets suggest that Web functionality begins at home, on the user's PC. but Google's Web spreadsheet is just another example of how easy it is to build desktop application that runs over the Web. It provides fascinating new sharing and collaboration capabilities, but one has to look at the integration point, the individual user, and ask if they are getting any extra value out of the experience in order to build a business.

So, Google is testing. And if it doesn't go well, they've already said in their announcement:

The prototypes on Google Labs are meant to be low-maintenance experiments. If one disappears it may be because no one was interested enough to use it, or because it wasn't stable enough for users to try it out, or because it was so wildly successful that heavy usage brought the server to its knees. Don't worry - while that particular application may not reappear, there will be something just as interesting to replace it shortly.

This is only a test. Does that mean there may be no business in Google Office, the predicted and prognosticated Web 2.0 assemblage of productivity applications Google is building? Maybe. The question is, does search, the company's core competence, align with users' need to keep track of their own data or is it really only useful for finding previously unknown information on the Web?  

The evidence from the Google Desktop Search experiment, still a beta in name, is that users don't necessarily see searching for data they created as the critical function of productivity software. Same goes for Apple's Spotlight and the garbled mess that is Microsoft Office search. Nice to have if they work, but not the key to getting work done more quickly.

Google Spreadsheet, like JotSpot's wiki-based spreadsheet before, shows that productivity needn't be tied to the desktop, but they also suggest that Web functionality begins at home, on the user's PC. Both export and import Excel documents, so I'd ask whether it isn't simply the case that Microsoft has to just match this "Web 2.0" functionality to retain its customers? It has thrived living up to such low expectations for a long time.

Finally, there is the question of privacy. Google, along with a slew of other providers of networked services, is being asked to collect and deliver user data to the U.S. Federal Government. In China, the company has voluntarily complied with government censorship to retain market share. And it is only a matter of time before Google, like other companies that keep and hold user data, experiences a security breach. Web-based applications are a potentially vast security hole that I think the enterprise will be loath to embrace.

Here's Google's discussion of personal data collected by Google Desktop Search:

Protecting users’ privacy is very important to Google. As a condition of downloading and using Google Desktop, you agree to the terms of the Google Desktop Privacy Policy [link], which may be updated from time to time, as expressed in the most recent version that exists at the time of your use. Information collected by Google may be stored and processed in the United States or any other country in which Google Inc. or its agents maintain facilities. By using Google Desktop you consent to any such transfer of information outside of your country. 

That's a lot of data moving around. Google uses the data it collects to place ads, so your data entered in Google Spreadsheets, even it is anonymized, may give hints as to what is going on in the market to your competitors. (There's a huge business just in analyzing what AdSense is saying about Google's customers that no one has undertaken.) It's a lot of opportunity for crackers and aggressive governments to access personal information.

Ultimately, the winner, if there is one, in this arms race of Web productivity, will be the company that ties productivity to security and doesn't exact a data price in exchange for networked collaboration features. That sounds like a job Microsoft was made to fulfill, if you ask me, because they still charge for software development and, if they are smart, will not look to capitalize on user data.


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