Google goes wild for wikis

With acquisition of JotSpot, search king picks up another little piece of what could eventually be a giant tech empire.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
4 min read
Google is empire building.

On Tuesday, JotSpot, which provides a hosted service mainly to corporate customers for building wikis, announced that it had been acquired by Google. Executives aren't saying how much Google spent on the 3-year-old company, but they were, not surprisingly, eager to say how well the two company's online offerings dovetail.

"We watched them acquire Writely and launch Google Groups, Google Spreadsheets and Google Apps for Your Domain. It was pretty apparent that Google shared our vision for how groups of people can create, manage and share information online," JotSpot co-founder and CEO Joe Kraus wrote in a blog announcing the deal. JotSpot's product is a platform for building wiki-based applications that in some cases aren't all that different from Google's existing Web applications. For example, the company has an online spreadsheet and calendar that multiple people can edit.

The JotSpot acquisition comes on the heels of news that Google plans to acquire the video-sharing site YouTube in a $1.65 billion stock acquisition. While some viewed the massive deal as a repudiation of Google's own video sharing site (though Google execs say that's not the case and both YouTube and Google Video will continue operating under their existing brands), experts say Google watchers shouldn't be so quick to make the same judgment on the JotSpot acquisition.

Why pick a fight with where Office is today when you can look at where the Web is going tomorrow?
--Peter O'Kelly, analyst, Burton Group

"What's interesting is Google spent a bunch of time recently updating Google Groups and adding some wiki features to it," said Greg Sterling, founder of Sterling Market Intelligence. "But JotSpot has a (collaborative) development platform, a bunch of applications in a nice package," as well as users and a brand, he said. "Google won't have to piece it all together from disparate parts."

Translation: Google clearly doesn't mind a little product overlap if it's getting good technology and engineers in a deal. And since the number of people using Web-based applications are still a tiny sliver when compared to Microsoft's massive customer list for the Office desktop software suite, the search company might as well mix and match pieces before finding the right combination to take Office head on.

Of course, describing anything Google does in relation to Microsoft Office as a "head-on" assault would be misleading. Indeed, few expect Google to go where other, shell-of-their-former-selves companies like Novell have gone before. Rather than try to replicate Microsoft Office, Google appears to be trying to beat the software king to a point in perhaps the not-so-distant future when a good chunk of applications used by businesses and consumers alike are Web-based services rather than PC software.

"People have been expecting Google to make a frontal assault on Microsoft Office," said Peter O'Kelly, an analyst at the Burton Group. "But why pick a fight with where Office is today when you can look at where the Web is going tomorrow?"

Right now, Google offers its own productivity applications, including Google Calendar, a word processor called Google Docs based on its acquisition of Writely, Google Spreadsheets and Google Applications for Your Domain, which bundles Web-based e-mail, calendar, chat and Web page publishing. Google also recently launched a beta of Google Docs & Spreadsheets, which combines its online word-processing and spreadsheet programs into one free program. Few would say they're within shouting distance of being as feature-rich as Microsoft's Office software, but even skeptics say that, bit by bit, they're improving.

JotSpot's product, on the other hand, allows people an easy way to create applications like a simple editor, spreadsheets, calendar and blogging that can be collaborated on over the Internet by multiple users. JotSpot revamped its offering in July to allow users to collaborate on different types of "office-like" products, and said it was testing an edition of its software that can be downloaded and run on a customer's servers.

"The Google guys could duplicate that, but it's just quicker to go get it and then blend it with the strengths that Google has," said Stephen Arnold, author of "The Google Legacy." Overlaps? There are some. But JotSpot adds a collaborative, wiki-style spin that Google didn't have on its own.

So far, Google isn't spelling out what it plans to do with Kraus' company. "While we do not have any future plans to announce at this time, JotSpot is a natural fit with Google offerings that enable people to create and share information on the Web," said Google spokesman Jon Murchinson.

Not surprisingly, in what is seen as a move to counter Google's move into Web-based Office-like apps, Microsoft has been revamping its business to focus on Web services with its new Windows Live and Office Live products.

O'Kelly doesn't think Google is done buying little companies in this arena. "This is really going to be a milestone in taking the wiki way of working to a different crowd, to casual developers," he said. "Say someone fluent in Excel macros or scripting languages."

The CEO of JotSpot competitor Socialtext, Ross Mayfield, said in a blog that the Google acquisition validates the importance of wiki-based applications. But Mayfield countered that Socialtext's software was standards-based and JotSpot "proprietary."

"This acquisition will further commoditize the low end of the market. Something we have encouraged with our Open Source versions of both Socialtext and SocialCalc," he wrote.

Yahoo, meanwhile, has partnered with PBWiki to allow Yahoo Groups users to create wikis.

Technology overlaps and competitive grousing aside, Google and Jotspot could prove an interesting combination.

"I feel like (Google) has its own successful line of products and we're bringing something slightly different to the table," said Kraus. "Sure, we're going to have to figure out how all of these things play together. I can't talk about specific product development plans."

CNET News.com's Martin LaMonica contributed to this report.