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Google's Office Competitor: When Will 'Free' Trump 'Feature-Rich'?

Almost two months ago, while pondering when (or if) Google's nascent productivity suite might eventually be able to seriously compete with Microsoft Office, RCPU offered this thought:

"No, Google Apps, Docs & Spreadsheets -- and most of the rest of the tools in the Google productivity arsenal -- aren't quite ready to threaten Office. But look out. Google's suite is SaaS (Software as a Service) in action. However, when users aren't connected or the company network is down, it's more like 'SaaS inaction.' There is no software installed on the client. This basic fact no doubt has conservative IT folks and users thinking twice about SaaS altogether."

Well, scratch that last bit off the list off drawbacks for Google Apps. Google this week introduced Google Gears, a browser plug-in that lets developers create ways to access Google applications offline. So, with a little tinkering here and there in Gears, it'll be possible for users to work in Google's spreadsheet or word processing applications without being connected to anything. And that's important for any set of productivity apps that wants to make serious inroads into the enterprise. (By the way, Google is basically employing an open source model here by throwing its apps open to developers pretty much without restrictions.)

Of course, Google Apps still doesn't have anything close to the functionality that Office offers, but it does have a lovely price tag -- namely free, or $50 per user per year for a supported version. Plus, the bloated (and very expensive, by comparison) Office arguably does too much already. How many users really use every feature of Microsoft Word, much less every feature in the entire suite? Back in the mid-'90s, software-marketing types would have bragged about a suite like Office being "feature-rich," meaning it was capable of doing a ton of stuff. We're not sure how much of a bragging point that is now, especially for software installed on the client.

On the other hand, Google, in theory, has the advantage of being able to add features to Apps -- or perhaps let users (or partners...or independent developers?) add them -- until users have the functionality they want and need. (We can't, by contrast, imagine Microsoft taking functionality out of Office in chunks to make it more lightweight and manageable. We can't imagine the price going down, either. And, as of today, there's still no purely Web-based version of Office.) With nothing installed on the client, Google Apps won't load down laptops with unused bells and whistles -- or with anything at all, for that matter. (And before we forget: Google's getting into the security game, too.)

It's that kind of potential flexibility -- combined with an attractive price tag -- that could make Google Apps a real threat to Microsoft Office. Eventually, that is, but probably not right now. For one thing, the functionality gap is still a problem for the newcomer. For another, Google Apps isn't the only lightweight, low-cost Office alternative out there, and Office still rules the productivity roost.

Beyond that, Microsoft has one massive advantage that only 90-plus percent market share can bring: familiarity. Sure, Office 2007, with its ribbons and such, is a departure from previous versions. But everybody knows Word, PowerPoint, Excel and the gang. They've become the Kleenexes and the Xerox machines of our time, brand names that define their product category better than the name of the category itself. Most office (small "o," although it really doesn't matter) workers don't think of a word processor as a word processor; they think of it as Microsoft Word. You know -- kind of they way they think of a search engine as Google.

And, if anything, name recognition is what might eventually let Google Apps go where other Office alternatives have failed to go before -- into the realm of double-digit market share. For now, though, Office is still intact as the sweetest of the suites, at least in terms of market share. But Microsoft had better get working on getting a low-cost, Web-based version of Office out the door, lest Google come along one of these days and tip its cash cow.

Do you have any experience with Google Apps? How much of a threat to Office do you see Google Apps as being? Are you running into it in your accounts? Let me know at lpender@rcpmag.com.

Posted by Lee Pender on 06/01/2007 at 1:20 PM


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