Look Out, Microsoft

We in the computer trade press remain ever poised to chronicle the next major battle between Microsoft and whatever company, governing body or new concept that seems even remotely positioned to challenge the Redmond giant. During the past few years, Google has been one of our favorite such challengers, even though Google hasn’t yet directly struck at Microsoft’s productivity application and client operating system core.
However, with Google’s announcement on Feb. 22 of a premium version of its Web-based messaging, calendar, word processor and spreadsheet application suite, all those Google versus Microsoft headlines–and Steve Ballmer chair-throwing anecdotes–take on a whole new flavor. While Google officials are saying that the company’s new, $50-per-user-per-year offering is targeted at companies not currently using Office, I believe that the suite threatens not only to cost Microsoft some Office and Exchange Server licensing dollars, but also to potentially destabilize Microsoft’s Windows desktop monopoly.
Initially, the most obvious roadblock to Google application adoption will be a perceived paucity of features. There’s a conventional wisdom that every desktop in a given office needs a baseline of productivity applications, and that that baseline is defined by Microsoft Office. But rather than attempt to clone Microsoft’s most popular products and enter into a futile feature-list-length race, Google is suggesting a new baseline.
Take, for instance, Google’s rather trim word processor. An online word processor stuffed with as many features as Microsoft Word wouldn’t have worked for Google, anyway. And as everyone–including Microsoft–agrees, most people don’t use the vast majority of any Office application’s features.
Microsoft arguably doesn’t have the freedom to deliver a lighter-weight Word that would do what most people need it to do, so the company has spent most of its time during the last several years working to make it easier for people to stumble across features they weren’t missing in the first place. Google, on the other hand, can announce right off the bat that users of its suite shouldn’t expect full Office parity, and that if your users need functionality that the Google suite doesn’t offer, you can spend the licensing dollars for Word on those users.
While the difference in cost between Google’s application offering and the costs for Microsoft Office and Exchange Server licenses is significant, what’s really disruptive about Google’s approach is what it has to offer individuals and small businesses: All of Google’s applications are freely available individually, and the standard version of Google’s application suite, which is limited to 25 users per domain, is free as well. While these free services lack the premium edition’s 99.9 percent uptime pledge for Gmail and lack support for add-ons to enable directory integration and e-mail archive management, they do offer solid entry points to Google’s application suite at all points of the consumer-to-enterprise continuum.
It’s been Microsoft’s knack for hooking users all along that continuum that’s set it apart from its competition–Windows support for things like video games may have no direct bearing on your enterprise, but you’d better believe that it impacts the size of the IT administrator talent pool with Windows familiarity.
With pricing and distribution–Google apps await all comers at every browser, on every platform, anywhere that’s connected to the Internet–Google can manage to readjust users’ application expectations. Indeed, I certainly don’t miss continually e-mailing myself stories as I move from work to home or between computers in our lab–and my attachment to that “feature” has been enough to heavily curtail my use of OpenOffice.org in recent months.
Of course, the same Web foundation that provides for the cross-platform support and ever-presence of Google’s apps remains the suite’s most unavoidable drawback–while Google apps are waiting for you wherever there’s Internet access, we’re still far from enjoying solid Internet access everywhere. I’ve been rather pleased with the online titan’s app efforts so far, but to really impress me–and keep Steve Ballmer throwing chairs, either figuratively or literally–Google’s got to figure out how to conquer offline as well.