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How I learned to say, 'Hi, Google Docs; bye, MS Word'

Do I really need all those features? No. And so I've created my last document in Microsoft Word, a product I first began using 27 years ago.

It's not often you'll hear this refrain, but this is one user who sleeps quite soundly about deciding to hitch his wagon to a decidedly inferior technology product.

With nary any regret, I've created my last document in Microsoft Word, a product I first began using 27 years ago. Now it's all Google Docs, all the time. And the thing is that I'm making the switch fully aware that Google remains leagues behind Microsoft when it comes to turning out "full-featured" word processors.

But it makes not a bit of difference. In a moment, I'll get into why.

First, let's give credit where it's due. MS Word is one of the best word processors I've ever used. Its designers have never failed to impress with the amount of new features they've stuffed into each new iteration of the software. And for that rarefied group of power users -- or people with too much time on their hands -- the upgrade cycle surely was welcomed. What about the rest of us? Well, we took what Microsoft gave us, though honestly, it was more than enough. Way more than enough, to be frank.

It's impossible to know how many people used all -- or most -- of the features in Word. I'm sure such people existed somewhere on the planet, though I rarely bumped into one. In the pre-Internet era, when Microsoft competed against the likes of Lotus and WordPerfect, that was one way to generate buzz. The "everything but the kitchen sink" approach didn't always pay off, but it was one way to impress computer magazine reviewers picking out the "best" word processor (or the "best" spreadsheet or the "best" database).

So when Google Docs became available in 2007, the folks working on Microsoft's Office apps must have laughed themselves silly. Especially the word processor, a bare-bones outgrowth of Google's earlier acquisition of Writely and starkly underfeatured compared with MS Word. In fact, Google wasn't even close to being the trailblazer in hosted office productivity apps. It was just following in the footsteps of AdventNet's Zoho, Silveroffice's Goffice, ThinkFree, Sun's OpenOffice, and Natium's Flysuite.

But as Apple proved when it entered the smartphone and tablet-computer markets, a company doesn't need to be early to make its mark. It needs to satisfy the customer. I tried the early version of Google's word processor and didn't like it. But Google improved on the product -- last year the company issued more than 200 updates to the core apps suite. Google designed the product with collaboration in mind, so that users can share and edit the same document in real time (extending, if need be, to mobile devices). It's now at the point where the app is entirely usable and reliable. The word processor may not dazzle the power users, but it surely does not confuse. And it lets users write and edit quickly. Do you need more? Oh, and did I mention it's also free? Another added bonus: It works seamlessly with the e-mail system we use at work, which happens to be Gmail.

"The beauty of the cloud is that there's no need to install updated software, just refresh your browser for the latest innovation," a Google representative told me in an e-mail.

Corny but true. Equally significant: Google Docs obviously doesn't depend on a particular underlying operating system.

But if any of this worries the people at Microsoft, they're not letting it show, dismissing Google's apps as half-baked. Here's what Microsoft told me when I asked for their assessment:

"There are two myths about Google Apps. The first is that Google cares about this business, when it is clear they're an advertising company and that's where their focus is. More than 96 percent of Google's revenue is generated by advertising. The second myth is that they have paying customers. In fact, analysts estimate that Google makes only $100 million to $200 million per year after almost five years in this market. We've found that 9 in 10 Google Apps customers continue to use Office. Our business has never been stronger.

Also, Microsoft trots out the following stats:

  • Nearly 200 million copies of Office 2010 have been sold worldwide,
  • SharePoint, Exchange, and Lync all grew double digits last year,
  • Office 365 is on track to be the fastest-growing business product in Microsoft history.

A few months ago, Microsoft created this video poking fun at Google Docs for daring to pass as a serious contender in business use (ironically posting the video to YouTube).

Maybe for now. In 2010, Forrester described the Docs initiative as a "failure." But technology doesn't remain static, and Microsoft knows Google is getting better at this, even though it doesn't get a lot of respect. And after the debut this week of Google Drive drive-in-the-sky there's reason to wonder how long Microsoft apps can retain their current dominance. My colleague Rafe Needleman carefully explains a not improbable scenario where, once users enter their data in Google Drive, they're going to discover how easy it is to open those files in non-Microsoft apps. Those free non-Microsoft apps.

What happens then? My hunch is that I won't be the only person who decides it's time to move on.