Net Buzz: Google Docs and Spreadsheets

When Google talks, people listen. Therefore, when Google offers alternatives to Microsoft, it is prudent to consider their impact. Google Docs & Spreadsheets, now in beta, is a multipronged assault on Fortress Microsoft.

The service provides documents and spreadsheets, and while many users also need presentation capabilities — if only occasionally — there’s no question these are the two main pillars of office usage.

As to be expected, Docs & Spreadsheets is an online service. The docs part came from Google’s purchase of Upstartle and its Writely online collaboration service with the spreadsheet component developed internally at Google Labs.

Having another office option causes us to examine, once again, how much is enough — and having it available online leads to a comparison with Microsoft’s Office Live online offering.

I’ve lost count of the number of applications that can open and manipulate .doc files on Windows, Linux, Mac or live on the Web. And though each has limitations, the more alternatives that are available the less the limitations seem to matter.

Return to your youth for a moment and conjure up a vision of the overlapping circles of the Venn diagrams you learned about in school.

Think of each circle representing a Microsoft Office alternative overlapping where they share a common feature or function. Each newcomer duplicates what it believes is the core set of functions required to be viable. While there will be differences among vendors, there will be a significant overlap as each vendor opts for the most significant functions.

As users, if we can confine ourselves to this core set of functions, we have documents that are almost universally accessible.

This is a strong motivation to reduce the features and functions we use in building our Office documents.

Moving to the online element, Microsoft Office Live is much more. Its two fee-based offerings, Live Essentials and Live Collaboration, appear to overlap the basic Docs & Spreadsheets functions but really seem to be focused on attracting businesses that want to outsource not only their Web site hosting but also hosting of business applications and storage. Office Live appears to be a true software-as-a-service offering.

So, while a direct comparison is probably not appropriate, it is worthwhile to understand what Google’s Docs & Spreadsheets can bring you — especially because it is free. You can move, copy and save documents easily from your local machine to your Google storage and convert them to, say, PDF, RTF or OpenOffice in the process.

You can e-mail them to a special version of your GMail address and a few minutes later there they are online. Collaboration with other GMail users is just a click away.

So while Docs & Spreadsheets isn’t likely to cause tremors in the corporate IT world, small/midsize business and corporate users might, as they have in the past, start a grass-roots movement in this direction. Enterprise architects would do well to have a look for themselves.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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