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How Google's Drive helps kill Microsoft's Office

This is how a search company can steal the productivity business: By storing work, not helping users edit it.

Google's hard drive in the sky, Google Drive, is a big threat to other cloud storage products like Dropbox and Box. But it's also a stab straight at the heart of Microsoft's mainstream business software, Microsoft Office.

While Google's productivity application suites, Docs (now incorporated into Drive) and Apps (for businesses), have been making some headway into Microsoft Office's territory, the important battlefield is not the application. It's the data. If Google can move the battlefield to a place where it has the bigger army and better weapons, the whole game changes. Google Drive might make that happen.

Let's look at the world from behind Google-colored glasses. Every time a user performs a search in the Google search engine, or clicks a link in Chrome, or +1s an item in Plus, Google adds an atom of data to its knowledge of what people like and what they do. This information helps Google index the Web and rank its results when people are searching for something. This is also the Facebook model, by the way.

Open Google Drive image with Pixlr Editor
The Google Drive 'Open with' feature can help you steal your data away from old desktop apps. Google Drive launch partner Pixlr shown. Screenshot by Ed Rhee/CNET

Moreover, every action that generates user data that doesn't touch down in a Google product or service deprives Google of information that it could otherwise use to index and understand the Web of human knowledge and preference. Microsoft Word documents stored on PCs? In the most uncharitable view, every one is money being stolen from Google.

All closed, siloed apps, for that matter, remove opportunity from Google. Co-founder Sergey Brin has recently spoken out against apps and companies that wall off data from the open Internet. There is indeed a danger, but it's not just about openness, it's about Google's own ability to index the data.

Back to Google Drive: By acting as the substrate for user data -- in other words, the file system -- Google gets exposed to many times more information. Google doesn't need, and in fact has no reason, to make this data public, but having it available to index and cross-reference does make the company's core service, targeted advertising, more valuable.

The more data Google has, the more valuable its product becomes. And that product, in case it's not already clear, is you. Your attention, which is sold to advertisers.

Microsoft's main product, meanwhile, is software, not data. (And its customers aren't advertisers, but people who buy software.) So why can't Microsoft's model and Google's live in harmony? Because Microsoft's software suite consists of application software and an operating system, and the operating system stores user data, and the data is what Google wants. So Google is undermining that function with Google Drive, and not just by offering a synchronized file system (which, by the way, Microsoft also offers). Once users put their data in Google Drive, they will also find out how easy it is to open these files in non-Microsoft apps. This is one of the reasons Google is launching Google Drive with an API for developers and a suite of partner products that shave off Microsoft customers a bit at a time.

One of the most important features that third-party developers are using with Google Drive is the "Open with" feature. If you upload a Microsoft Project file to Drive, for example, you can open it with the Web app SmartSheet, directly on the Web. Similarly, Web apps like SlideRocket can open PowerPoint files. Google's own productivity apps can also open Microsoft files.

The more people realize that they don't need Office to access their archives of files from the pre-Google Drive era, the more likely they are to look to Google Drive (or perhaps competing products, if they have similar partners) as primary storage. And Google wins, while Microsoft loses.

How can Microsoft counter this market erosion at Google's hands? The company has its own cloud storage product and a strong history with developers. And it has the business customers. But according to a Google Drive developer I spoke with, one who's been dealing also with Microsoft for years, Microsoft is not there yet. It has the centralized storage in SkyDrive and Office 365, but not the infrastructure -- especially the identity and sign-on tools -- that developers need to integrate into the Microsoft cloud.

Microsoft also needs to protect its software licensing revenue for Office. Google, the upstart in business software, can undercut Microsoft's prices since all its software sales are incremental on top of its search and advertising businesses.

Other companies realize that whoever controls the data controls the market. Box, for instance, just launched OneCloud, which lets you open documents in a variety of apps. It's mobile-only so far, though.

It is no longer a PC world, and because of that Microsoft doesn't own the world of work. People do their jobs on their own computers, on the Web, and on mobile devices; and they expect their work to follow them onto whatever hardware they're using. Every major technology company understands this. But only a few have the products, the infrastructure, and the freedom to get ahead of the shift.