Where is Google going? 8 June, 2006 — Stuart Brown
Hell in a handbasket or Office killer?
With the recent release of Google Spreadsheets, and the acquisition of Writely, the AJAX- based word processor, it would seem that Google is preparing to assemble a suite of applications and tools to rival that most ubiquitous area of software - the office suite. But will the millions of Microsoft Office users switch over so easily?
With the rise of desktop-like interactivity on the web, there has been a trend towards ultra-modern, ultra-interactive web applications. Traditionally the domain of the monolithic software providers, and wholly based on local storage and installations, this sort of software configuration has been around for ages - and in the early days of the IBM-compatible PC, it was the spreadsheets and word processing suites that drove the big-business deals and helped lodge millions of grey boxes in offices and homes worldwide.
Thin client, fat wallet
There has been talk of so-called 'thin client' machines replacing the ubiquitous yet hulking PC - taking the storage and calculation requirements for software to the server, and leaving but the bare minimum sitting on the user's desk.
The idea has been passed around, from use at the office, to at home, and has been touted as a cheap solution for third-world countries to get online, but the grey boxes remain an integral part of modern computing, and there are scant few companies rushing to replace them.
Software publishers love the idea however - being able to roll-out version changes overnight and allowing pay-per-usage software in an enforceable way makes a tempting solution for them. With the advent of high-speed internet connections we are just beginning to see this come into effect - Valve's content delivery system, Steam, for instance, will track software usage, apply upgrades and ensure licenses are being obeyed - all the while giving Valve a channel to promote their latest games.
Users do see some benefit, however - a streamlined delivery system without distribution costs and fancy cardboard packaging does mean that software can work out much cheaper. And with Google, it turns out the software is free.
It's all about the collaboration
When compared to their desktop counterparts, Google Spreadsheet, Writely and Google Base fare poorly when compared to established programs such as Microsoft Excel, Word and Access. To be fair to Google, it would seem that they are merely laying the foundations at this stage - and some of the features allude to the future power of the thin-client model.
Collaboration is key - one of the most intriguing ability is the level to which a Google spreadsheet can be shared, for instance. One person can be editing the spreadsheet whilst another is viewing the same spreadsheet - and this is only the start of what is to come.
Imagine a complete, fully integrated, fully featured Office suite based on the web - collaborative documents, data stores and projects could become a breeze with multiple user editing, sharing, and versioning. Rather than the single-computer based application that has dominated offices for the last few decades, we are beginning to see the start of open collaboration on the web - wiki-type websites and calendars shared online are just the start.
In a word, no. Google's current offering of applications are underdeveloped, vestigial apps - and are under the 'beta' or 'labs' banner to reflect this. Microsoft won't be worried just yet - and no doubt they will play their part in the collaborative revolution. But what does lie ahead, if Google play things right, is unseen possibility and a drastic change in the way work is done in offices and workplaces the world over - truly collaborative content creation and editing - without the drag associated with group emails and unsynchronized documentation and reports.