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Google Office Thrill Fizzle

The storyline ahead of the Google-Sun Microsystems joint news conference was irresistible: Google joining Sun to attack Microsoft head-on in Redmond's Office stronghold.

Imagine, Google using Sun's OpenOffice.org to develop some sort of GoogleOffice alternative to Microsoft Office. The storylines abound. You'd have the transitional shift away from fat client applications to lightweight Web-based services. At the same time, you get the drama of an emerging giant joining forces with a grizzled veteran to storm the gates of the Microsoft establishment. All this even as Microsoft obviously recognized the underlying opportunity and threat more than five years ago.

The reality of the early October news conference turned out to be much less exciting. Sun will include the Google Toolbar as an option with its Java Runtime Environment (JRE) downloads. The two companies also plan a multi-year "strategic" collaboration to promote and enhance various technologies and offerings, including Google's online fare, Sun's Java technologies, the OpenOffice.org productivity applications suite and the Sun OpenSolaris operating system. Not exactly world changing stuff.

Sun CEO Scott McNealy
He’s Back! After a hiatus, Sun chairman and CEO Scott McNealy makes an appearance on the anti-Microsoft ramparts.

So the question begs, did the trade press jump to wild conclusions by misinterpreting a few clues? Was GoogleOffice a feint to drum up interest in an otherwise dull announcement? Or was there really a GoogleOffice plan that collapsed at the last minute? We may never know.

But what if there had been a GoogleOffice partnership? Google would finally be spending some of its "cool" capital and revealing how it planned to make use of its profligate stock market riches. If the company were taking aim at the $11 billion golden goose that is Microsoft's Office business, it would certainly explain some of the chair throwing by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. The battle lines would be clearly drawn.

Intriguing what-if scenarios, however, still can't make the deal make sense. Microsoft Office is more than a desktop software platform—it's a development environment that shores up and draws support from all the other pieces of the Microsoft software stack. And aside from the enterprise reticence to throw out all that investment, why would enterprises consent to buy software from Google—up to now a consumer company built on ad revenues? On the consumer side, meanwhile, Microsoft isn't standing still. The "Kahuna" Hotmail beta shows that the company won't concede Web real estate to Google.

Juicy as an Office battle might have been, the Google threat probably has more to do with user preference than anything else. Google and Web search engines are shifting users from hierarchical organization and folders to search, a transition that Google is clearly ahead of. Google is also thinking strategically when it does things like push to make San Francisco wireless. Accelerating broadband network access could make moving away from desktop software less difficult. The real fight between Microsoft and Google may develop more slowly and subtly rather than erupting over something like Office productivity software.

One dramatic storyline may have died on the vine, but another has cropped up. Ever since Sun's $2 billion settlement with Microsoft last year, Sun chairman and CEO Scott McNealy has been downright reserved in his public comments about Microsoft. All that could change. A few weeks before the Google news conference, Sun launched a new version of StarOffice aimed squarely at Office customers. At least by appearing on stage with Microsoft's current arch-enemy, we may see the reemergence of one of Microsoft's most spirited critics.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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