You may or may not have noticed, Google has been rolling out some online services that challenge one of Microsoft’s key territories – Office. Google’s online version is Google Docs. You can use it to create documents, spreadsheets and presentations using nothing more than a web browser with an Internet connection.
Currently, Microsoft doesn’t appear to have an online version of Office available. If there is one, I haven’t found it. But searching for variations on ‘Office’ gets all sorts of junk. Tip for Microsoft. When it comes to having a version of Office available online, consider using the following URLs – http://www.microsoft.com/docs and http://docs.microsoft.com/ 😉
Here’s the interesting part. I’ve been playing with spreadsheets for a couple of ideas and one feature required me to delve into Google Docs for the first time. Whilst Excel 2007 was best for one solution, Google Docs was best for the other. That, I didn’t expect to happen.
Case 1: Excel 2007
The image below shows the Googleshare (What % of results containing one word also contain another) for various keyword combinations. The legend shows each primary word, the x-axis shows the secondary words, and the y-axis shows the percentage value for each combination:
Unsurprisingly, Apple gets a lot more love than anyone else. It gets more ‘bad’ too but that might be caused by references to the edible edition.
The data was created via a web query against Google. It’s actually a lot easier to create the data connections in Google Docs than in Excel, thanks to Google’s importXML function (it’s the reason I started trying out Google Docs), but Excel was better for playing around with the data once it was imported. The standard charts built in to Google Docs are limited in features and duller than dishwater. Net result for me – I’m now using Google Docs to test word combinations and the ones that generate interesting results are then reproduced in Excel to further analyse and visualise. (Side note: tried to do the same with Live search results but couldn’t find a way to extract the data)
Case 2: Google Docs
The image below shows what you earn in interest when investing £1,000 for 5 years in an ISA versus a normal savings account (ISAs have higher interest rates and are tax-free):
Except, it isn’t actually an image, it’s an interactive chart provided by Google Gadgets, that hook directly into Google Docs. And on top of that, I published the chart enabling it to be embedded here without anyone needing Google Docs to view it. Click Play to watch the visualisation. If the bubbles don’t change size, Click ‘Size’ on the right and select ‘Interest’. (Haven’t figured out a way to pre-configure the settings.)
You can’t publish elements from Excel to the web without using SharePoint as the web platform. And Excel doesn’t have currently have any funky interactive visualizations, like time lines and motion charts. In Google Docs, you simply select ‘Insert’ and choose ‘Gadget’ to access a range of interactive visualisations. And to publish them, click on Publish and you get a snippet of code that you can insert on any web page, no specialist platform required.
New ways of working with information
Whilst I’m not surprised that Microsoft is not keen to provide an online version of Office just yet – they have a revenue stream to protect whilst Google doesn’t – avoiding the inevitable seems to be a riskier strategy. The surprise from playing with Google Docs has been discovering features it has that the current version of Microsoft Office can’t do.
Google has its challenges too – like finding a revenue stream for Google Docs. Unless relying on advertising revenue generated from the search side of the business is considered enough… that thought should freak out Microsoft. What if Google Docs is more about ‘brand Google’ than revenue?
Online vs Offline
One of the big arguments against using browser-based services has been their lack of offline capabilities. You typically need to be online via an Internet connection to access content. This is beginning to change. Google has recently announced that you will be able to take Google Docs offline. And they are by no means the only service provider planning to go down this route.
But here’s the rub. I hate using the browser offline. I don’t know if it’s just me or if others feel the same. Working within a web browser is all about being connected to the Internet. I accept certain limitations in the application, such as: a fixed-size input area like the one in Blogger that I’m using to type this post (ditto for writing emails); clunky in-page menus with limited options; missing features. I don’t want to take those limitations with me offline. When I need to be offline or use advanced features, I want proper applications. Even for reading blogs. The one application that is never opened when I’m on a plane is the web browser.
What should Microsoft do?
Three things I would be bleating on about if I still worked there:
1. Provide common gateways between products and online services
Help is already integrated (you can download templates etc. from Office online). Now it needs to be at a natural extension for all features. ‘Insert Chart’ should include the option to go online and access new Chart types, as they become available. If Microsoft is serious about their ‘software plus services’ strategy, all products need the ability to interact online and integrate incremental enhancements. The motion chart used in this post comes from Google’s acquisition of Gapminder Trendanalyzer – see end of post for a much better example. Microsoft has demonstrated a similar technology at its annual TechFest (where MS Research shows off their projects) – DynaVis. Goodness only knows when we’ll get our hands on it. Holding features until the next product release is no longer a good strategy…
2. Make it easier to share work created in Office on the web
And that does not mean SharePoint. At the moment, to publish elements of Excel online requires SharePoint (and not just any old SharePoint, the most expensive version – Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 Enterprise Edition). Not necessarily a problem for collaborating within an organisation, if you’re deploying SharePoint, but it means a limited audience. It is easier to create stuff in Google Docs if you want to publish on the Internet. And what happens as people start to publish more using Google Docs? Others start asking where they can go to get the same features, things they can’t do within Office… I’m not saying ditch integration with SharePoint, but it shouldn’t be the only option.
3. Get an online edition of Office out there for people to start using
Online services aren’t necessarily replacing traditional applications, they are creating new ways of working with information. Ways that might not come up in focus groups and product planning. Not having an online service risks being late to a game you are supposed to lead. A big win for Google Docs has been enabling people to collaborate simultaneously on spreadsheets in real-time over the Internet. In this scenario, browser (and online service) is best because all collaborators are, by default, using the same version of the software and spreadsheet. They don’t need to purchase, download or install anything to participate. But when it comes to features, people don’t want full Excel inside the browser – it would be too complicated. Equally, I’m not convinced people want to tolerate browser limitations all the time. Somebody who provides a marriage between the two environments might just be onto a winner. About that software+services strategy…
I always thought SharePoint was key to securing the future for Office. Now I’m not so sure. Too much of the current Office Live strategy appears focused on using SharePoint as the hosting platform for all things web-related to do with Office, whilst Office carries on doing what it’s always done. People are using Google Docs not (just) for a cheap spreadsheet in a web browser, but for scenarios that benefit from the spreadsheet being in that web browser. Here’s a thought. Many organisations will not use Google Docs because it is hosted on the Internet. Imagine if Google decided to add Google Docs to their Enterprise Search Appliance…
[Disclaimer: I used to work at Microsoft. I’ve got a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with Microsoft. I saw a very early preview of an alpha version of the SharePoint bits in Office 14 (the next release) last year under NDA which means it in no way influenced this post. This little splurge came from an hour playing with a spreadsheet in Google Docs and being surprised that it did somethings better than Office 2007 and SharePoint. It’s the first time I’ve seen Office in the same light as mainframes when client/server entered the workplace. They didn’t start by replacing the core mainframe applications, rather they took over the functions that mainframes had introduced – e.g. spreadsheets, email – and were doing badly…]
Now, for a far better example of the benefits of motion charts:
[Update: 27 Apr 08] A Google Docs vs Office comparison has been posted at GoogleSystem – Google Docs Lives to Share the Words