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Key Google Docs changes promise faster service

As part of bid to get companies to abandon traditional desktop software, Google has re-engineered Google Docs infrastructure to improve speed and formatting.

Google Docs Spreadsheet
Changes to the underlying code for products like Google Spreadsheet improves speed and collaboration, according to the company.

Google has made some under-the-hood changes to its Google Docs product, promising faster service and real-time collaboration tools.

The changes address many of the demands of Google Docs users for more speed and better compatibility with offline products like Microsoft Word and Excel, said Jonathan Rochelle, group product manager for Google Apps. Google's Dave Girouard, president of the Enterprise group, is expected to introduce the changes at Google's Atmosphere conference Monday in Mountain View, Calif.

Google has had some success getting companies to switch to its suite of Web-based office productivity software, but there's still an awful lot of corporations using the tried-and-true desktop-based software. But Google's long-term vision of computing is based around the notion that the Web and the browser become the primary vehicles for applications, and Google Docs is an important part of realizing that vision.

The main improvement was to create a common infrastructure across the Google Docs products, all of which came into Google from separate acquisitions, Rochelle said. This has paved the way for Google to offer users a chance to do character-by-character real-time editing of a document or spreadsheet, almost the same way Google Wave lets collaborators see each other's keystrokes in a Wave.

Those changes have also allowed Google to take more control of the way documents are rendered and formatted in Google Docs, instead of passing the buck to the browser to make those decisions. This allows Google to ensure that documents will look the same on the desktop or in the cloud, an important consideration for designing marketing materials or reviewing architectural blueprints, for example.

Rochelle acknowledged that for certain tasks--for example, huge spreadsheets riddled with complex formulas--Google Docs can't quite replicate the desktop experience. But the company grows closer to that goal with each new release, and the improvements rolling out Monday get Google closer to that ultimate goal, he said.

In addition to the long-term strategic vision, Google Docs is a key part of its quest to find something other than search ads to keep the dollars flowing. This is one of the few areas in which Google actually charges for its services, asking for $50 per user per year for access to Google Apps Premium, which also comes with a more traditional take on customer support than Google usually employs.

It has the added benefit of tweaking long-time rival Microsoft, which makes a ton of money from Microsoft Office sales. Microsoft is also intent on delivering online office-productivity services to its customers, with plans to release online versions of Word, Excel, and Powerpoint to users with Office 2010. That will be introduced in May for business users and June for consumers.

Google plans to discuss its plans for the enterprise and cloud computing at the Atmosphere conference, which around 400 CIOs are expected to attend Monday.