Google revamps Docs, targets Office users

Google Inc. is attempting to woo Microsoft Office shops with a bundle of new upgrades to its Docs platform, which included many collaboration-focused features. The company made the announcement at its CIO-focused Atmosphere 2010 Cloud Computing conference on Monday.


The feature that will probably be most attractive to enterprises is the ability for multiple users to simultaneously compose and edit a document. This functionality, which allows users to see “character-by-character” edits as their colleagues make them in real-time, is currently offered only as part of Google’s spreadsheet tool.


Sticking with the collaboration theme, Google said users will also be able to work together on flow charts and diagrams in real-time as a result of Docs’ revamped drawing editor.


Google posted a video of this functionality on its YouTube channel page.


Other updates to the word processing tool include more accurate importing of third-party document file types, improved imaging features, better numbering and bullets options, and a ruler for adjusting margins. The ruler, along with a new feature that will allow users to post notes and comments within their documents, look to have been created in direct response to features already found in Microsoft Office.


Google’s spreadsheet platform also got a face lift to improve its speed and ease-of-use. The updates include a formula bar, auto-complete functionality, and drag-and-drop columns.


Speaking to several hundred CIOs at its Mountain View, Calif.-based Googleplex, CEO Eric Schmidt said that enterprise computing is moving away from monolithic software to Web-based apps. For Google, developing the platforms — which include Chrome OS, Android OS, and Google Apps — will continue to be its focus, he said.


“All of us, including Microsoft, are trying to move to this Web model,” Schmidt said. He added that Google’s goal is not to fully replace the incumbents, but rather to have customers use its services about 80 per cent of the time.


With its Apps platform, Schmidt said Google currently has “a couple million” customers with about 3,000 businesses a day implementing some aspect of it every day. “We can say the systems work at scale,” he added.


Schmidt said that as many of these customers get on-board, they are looking for additional functionality and apps to deal with their specialized document reduction policies or their change management policies. He said that Google’s goal is to build the platform and have IT shops either create their own custom apps or look to third-party apps on Google’s app store.


Tim Hickernell, a lead analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group Ltd., said it was nice to see Google implementing collaboration functionality in wake of its recent purchase of AppJet’s real-time collaborative text editing suite EtherPad.


But as impressive as the new features might be, he added, preliminary research from an upcoming Info-Tech report indicates that IT shops are using services like, Zoho, and Google Docs as a complementary platform, rather than a fully supported application.


“Most of Google Docs usage is as a complementary product,” Hickernell said. “There is no real threat to Microsoft Office.”


In fact, Hickernell said his research shows that if companies were forced to migrate away from Microsoft’s productivity, it would actually be OpenOffice.Org as the likely destination for many IT shops due to format compatibility.


The few companies that have actually switch to Google Apps, he said, have made the move because they’ve migrated away from Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes and are “riding the coattails of Gmail.”


In terms of the collaboration usage, which was the most heavily hyped aspect of the Docs upgrade, Hickernell said that when business users are collaborating with each other, many are actually staying away from live parallel collaboration in favour of serial collaboration.


“Trying to get everybody online together is still a burden for most teams,” he added.

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