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 hasnt yet directly struck at Microsofts productivity application and client operating system core.
However, with Googles 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 companys 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 Microsofts Windows desktop monopoly.
Initially, the most obvious roadblock to Google application adoption will be a perceived paucity of features. Theres 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 Microsofts most popular products and enter into a futile feature-list-length race, Google is suggesting a new baseline.
Take, for instance, Googles rather trim word processor. An online word processor stuffed with as many features as Microsoft Word wouldnt have worked for Google, anyway. And as everyone—including Microsoft—agrees, most people dont use the vast majority of any Office applications features.
Microsoft arguably doesnt 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 werent missing in the first place. Google, on the other hand, can announce right off the bat that users of its suite shouldnt expect full Office parity, and that if your users need functionality that the Google suite doesnt offer, you can spend the licensing dollars for Word on those users.
While the difference in cost between Googles application offering and the costs for Microsoft Office and Exchange Server licenses is significant, whats really disruptive about Googles approach is what it has to offer individuals and small businesses: All of Googles applications are freely available individually, and the standard version of Googles application suite, which is limited to 25 users per domain, is free as well. While these free services lack the premium editions 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 Googles application suite at all points of the consumer-to-enterprise continuum.
Its been Microsofts knack for hooking users all along that continuum thats set it apart from its competition—Windows support for things like video games may have no direct bearing on your enterprise, but youd 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 thats connected to the Internet—Google can manage to readjust users application expectations. Indeed, I certainly dont 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 Googles apps remains the suites most unavoidable drawback—while Google apps are waiting for you wherever theres Internet access, were still far from enjoying solid Internet access everywhere. Ive been rather pleased with the online titans app efforts so far, but to really impress me—and keep Steve Ballmer throwing chairs, either figuratively or literally—Googles got to figure out how to conquer offline as well.
Advanced Technologies Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.