Google Faces a Tall Order in MS Office Challenge

Opinion: To be a viable competitor of Microsoft's Office is a tall order, but Office 2007 is being threatened as no version of Office has ever been before.

Looking at the prospect of a Google office suite, and at how that package might competition with Microsofts Office, requires at least a five-point examination.

A credible competitor for Microsofts Office must offer good answers to questions concerning application design, user training, enterprise process customization, data control and client computer support.

Whatever Microsofts recent sins may have been in the realm of anti-competitive behavior, the company unquestionably earned its edge in the market for mainstream office applications on graphical user interface machines.

Two decades ago, Microsoft made major investments of talent and time in creating its Word and Excel for the Macintosh, in the brief but exciting epoch when only Apples machine offered a mass-market testbed for interactive ideas that had never before been realized on an affordable PC.

Whether the Mac owes its continuing viability to Microsofts investments is perhaps the Mac communitys most inconvenient and uncomfortable truth.

Microsoft annoyed some members of the Macintosh community (this writer among them) by putting a higher priority on innovation than on conformance with platform conventions.

For example, Microsoft Word 3.0 on the Macintosh pioneered interactive customizable menus in the late 1980s, but in the process it violated the standard Macintosh mechanism for putting the contents of menus in standardized resource files.

Very quickly, though, there were more Word users benefiting from Microsofts more accessible customization methods than there had ever been Macintosh users who actually altered menu content or behavior with Apples standard but cryptic tools.

Microsoft has continued to set application design standards—in the sense of defining what people expect, if not always what people like—with its Office applications and their "Insert Object" and "Paste Special" and "Tools | Options" commands.

In the process, to be sure, Microsoft has spawned a minor industry of teaching users how to work around or disable some of Microsofts inventions—for example, the oft-undesired selection of whole words when dragging the mouse through text, or the AutoCorrect and AutoFormat behaviors that some Word users dont realize they can selectively turn off.

Even so, for people who turn out uncountable variations of a relatively small number of complex document types, the customizable behaviors of applications like Word would be hard to give up.

Would-be competitors must take care not to dismiss too lightly these features: Even if any one user only employs a small fraction of Words options or Excels functions and commands, the repertoire used by any given user are likely to be critical to that user.

Moreover, many of these customizations only work well because the average users machine has vastly more processing power and memory at its disposal than any plausible technology forecast in 1986 would ever have placed on the desk of the mainstream office worker of 2006.

/zimages/7/28571.gifWill enterprises go for Googles apps? Click here to read more.

Some of the most appealing features of each successive major update of Microsoft Office have been those that took notice of quantum jumps in desktop and laptop capability.

Matching the interactive speed and the increasingly global scope of these office power tools will challenge the skills of developers who are trying to deliver functionality through a wire instead of through a high-speed processor cache and memory bus.

Ironically, though, Microsoft may be making itself vulnerable with the dramatic redesign of the Office user interface in the forthcoming Office 2007.

Whether Office 2007 is better, or not, it certainly is different—and Microsoft may find itself, not for the first time, competing harder against its own installed base than against any other entrant into the market.

Office 97 is alive and well on many desktops. Meanwhile, as long as Microsoft is daring to make things look and behave differently than before, the barriers to entry into the office applications market are pushed that much lower for everyone else—and the benefits that other applications might offer of remote sessions available from any Web kiosk, or integrated collaboration aids built in from the bottom up, may seem to shine more brightly than before.

Next Page: Data control and privacy concerns.