Google: Don't upgrade Office, add Docs

Google Enterprise exec talks about ways Google Docs can work alongside Office for businesses not ready to scrap Microsoft's desktop suite altogether.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
8 min read
On the eve of the business launch of Office 2010, Google is arguing that there is a better way for businesses to upgrade their productivity suite.

Instead of paying Redmond for the new version, Google argues businesses would be better off using the version of Office they have and mixing in Google Docs to get their dose of collaboration and Web-based tools.

"Most people find, and they maybe perhaps don't expect it at first, that Google Docs works quite well with Office and in fact it makes Office better," Google Enterprise President Dave Girouard said in an interview on Monday.

Google Enterprise division president Dave Girouard Tom Krazit/CNET

While taking on Microsoft's dominant Office franchise has proved to be a fools' errand for many other companies, (remember StarOffice?) Google has resources none of the other companies could match.

Plus, Girouard argues, Microsoft's approach is starting to look dated as we enter the world of cloud computing, even with the addition of the new browser-based Office Web Apps.

"Microsoft is building products that are designed complements and require the desktop applications," Girouard said. "We're building products that have no dependency on desktop applications."

I've posed some of the challenges that Google's approach raises to Microsoft business division head Stephen Elop and will have his responses tomorrow. In the meantime, here is an edited transcript of my conversation with Girouard.

Q: People think Google wants businesses to rip out Microsoft Office and put in Google Docs. One of the notions Google has been raising is the idea of not paying for an upgrade and adding Google Docs as a collaboration on top of that. Is that a pitch you are actively making?
Girouard: I wouldn't say so much it is a pitch we are making. It's what we are hearing that our customers are doing quite frequently. They already own (Microsoft) Office. They don't feel the need to de-install it. They may actually be taking it off some desktops in the interest of slimming down and simplicity. Most people find, and they maybe perhaps don't expect it at first, that Google Docs works quite well with Office and in fact it makes Office better. If you think about the world moving into this cloud computing era, it may well be a very good transitional strategy on some of your desktops or all of your desktops and then have the ability to use a cloud-based application at the same time.

Given that this version of Office is going to bring Microsoft's Web apps, why should businesses look at Google Docs?
Girouard: All Web apps aren't created equal. Microsoft is building products that are designed complements and require the desktop applications. We're building products that have no dependency on desktop applications.

I think they have a strategy designed around their business model, which means they require Office and people to license Office. There are a lot of caveats and limitations in their Web Office stuff. It requires SharePoint 2010. SharePoint 2010 is not part of BPOS (the current version of Microsoft's hosted online service.) The only way you actually get Web-based apps now is through the installed product, the on-premise product. I think they have a lot of complexity to their model, a lot of dependencies. You can't have SharePoint 2010 without 64-bit servers, etc. When you keep pulling at the thread what you have is the usual ugly complexity of upgrading enterprise software.

The Microsoft Web Apps require online access. For a while you had a competitive advantage in that Google Apps could work offline. But you guys have taken that feature down. Can you talk about why that is and why not leave it up while you are building the new HTML 5-based offline access?
Girouard: Frankly, because very, very few people were using it. An industry standard approach used by a lot of software companies and browsers is better. We wanted to get to HTML 5 faster and trying to drag along a Gears-based implementation was going to slow that down.

The Web as it was originally designed was not designed to work offline. As a result, a lot of things grew up on the Web don't. Sharepoint sites, for that matter, don't work offline. Blogs don't work offline. The Web is going to adapt to support offline access and that's what HTML 5 is about. That's our view. We don't necessarily want to handle our Google Docs as special case. We want to have Web-based applications work offline properly. We think everybody's Web-based applications ought to work offline.

In talking to Zoho, one of its notions is that, not only are the basic productivity applications going online, but in the next phase they are going to be components of other applications?
Girouard: I think that's actually quite interesting. A lot of times we actually question ourselves why we have the same division lines as traditional installed software. Why can't a spreadsheet and a word processor be one and the same. A lot of times documents or spreadsheets end up being embedded in Web sites, which is really telling. One of the most common things you see in Google sites are calendars or documents or graphs that come out of spreadsheets. It really does suggest that a spreadsheet or a word processing document isn't necessarily an end to itself. It's a Web site. Most of the interesting things happen not in isolation, but as you mix and match content types.

"When you keep pulling at the thread what you have is the usual ugly complexity of upgrading enterprise software."

What is really the goal with Google Docs? I imagine it is not to take the existing types of tools and bring those exact same features online and stop there?
Girouard: We're really creating a platform (where) everybody really can contribute to the Web, whether that means in the confines of a company or as a consumer to their family. I think that pretty core to all of our apps-related services is (allowing) everybody to contribute and work together to create content. The essence of our platform, and I think of cloud computing in general, is about people working together as opposed to an individual being productive on their own.

I think that's what the PC era was about, a single person on a single computer doing things you couldn't do before, like creating a fancy brochure, you would have otherwise had to go to a printer before. That was really compelling in the 80s and 90s. I think this era of computing is about how people get things done together. The Web is that platform to enable that.

Are there any capabilities that you guys are looking to offer that you feel require a desktop application, or are you guys pretty sure that everything you want to do for your enterprise strategy, you can do without writing desktop software?
Girouard: Obviously, the browser itself is desktop software, so we are putting a lot of focus there with Chrome, because we want to push the state of the browsers forward. There's no inherent reason why the browser can't be as good or better a development platform as any desktop operating system. Our view is generally, you should not have to install lots of applications on a desktop and manage upgrades to them and patches to them and all of the security issues that come with it.

Having a singular, very powerful browser--and it doesn't just mean Chrome, it can certainly mean IE and it can mean Firefox and Safari, etc.--but having one application that stays updated, to us is very powerful, because it's more secure. It's lower maintenance in terms of managing desktops. It works across platforms. All of these things, I think, will make the lives of both ordinary users and IT types much better.

Is there some irony in the fact that, while you guys and others are moving us away from installing applications on the desktop side, that one of the biggest trends in mobile, including on Google's Android, is to have a lot more native applications?
Girouard: Mobile is a different platform. For sure, you cannot deliver all the things via a browser that you can on a local application in mobile. Mobile has a lot of issues that aren't nearly as relevant on the desktop, such as battery and power consumption. One thing local applications can do really well is keep connectivity and use less power in communication.

We very much believe this is a transitional time. Applications in the mobile world will move to the browser in the future. It's just a question of when. We deliver a lot of applications both ways. I don't think it's either/or.

Are there some interesting ways that Google is using its apps internally that might be useful for companies that are considering the product?
Girouard: We do all sorts of things. Every product team has a Google Sites page where you go to get all the updates if you are on an early release, internal version of something. We pretty much run the entire company on Google Docs and Google Sites.

There's a lot of ad hoc things that I think are pretty powerful. A couple of weeks ago, when the volcano activity was happening out of Iceland, I happened to look at my e-mail at noon on a Sunday. Marty, our security guy, had sent out an e-mail to the entire company with a link to spreadsheet and said "If you are stuck in Europe and trying to get home, or stuck somewhere else and trying to get home to Europe, please add your information to this spreadsheet."

Two hours later, I looked back and there were 270 names in there. By Sunday night, they had chartered three planes and gotten a few other forms of transit and gotten 90-plus-percent of the people a plan to get home. To me it was a simplistic example--all it was was a link to a spreadsheet. I do wonder how would we have done this if we didn't have Google Docs? Would he have built a SharePoint site? He certainly couldn't have e-mailed around a spreadsheet to 25,000 people.

It's still fairly small in terms of the number of really large enterprises that are broadly using Google Apps. Is that fair?
Girouard: It's in the order of a few dozen. The further you go up the food chain in terms of size of company, the earlier the market is. Our first company, sort of Fortune 1000 company, went live on Google Apps about 18 months ago. It's that early. Now it's a couple dozen but it's growing very quickly.

Was that Genentech?
Girouard: There are a couple others that were about the same time...but the fall of 2008 was really the first big companies of that scale going live. Now it's happening every two or three weeks that a company of that scale goes live.