Microsoft is working on a not-so-secret project, code-named Albany, that will amount to an online, on-demand office productivity suite to compete with the free online Google Docs applications, sources have confirmed to eWEEK.
While the details are sketchy and Microsoft officials have declined to comment on the subject, analysts and media reports suggest that Project Albany is likely a combination of existing Microsoft products-Office Live Workspace, Windows Live OneCare and Microsoft Works-packaged into an online service.
“What I understand is [Albany] is really aimed at Works more than at Office-at occasional users of word processing and spreadsheets-the exact audience that would consider an online productivity suite,” said Directions on Microsoft analyst Rob Helm.
Office Live Workspace is billed as an online extension of Office. It lets users create an online work space where documents can be saved and accessed via a Web browser. The work space can be shared with other people for collaboration purposes. Work space owners can control who can view, comment and edit documents. Users can also synchronize contact, task and event lists with Outlook.
Windows Live OneCare brings in a sort of PC infrastructure as a service, with features including anti-virus and anti-spyware protection, online ID protection, proactive configuration fixes and recommendations, Wi-Fi security, multi-PC management tools, printer sharing tools, and backup and restoration capabilities.
Microsoft Works is a productivity suite, similar to Office, aimed at consumers and small businesses. It has word processing and spreadsheet capabilities and is mostly sold at retail stores or preinstalled on new PCs. Currently Works is sold as an on-premises application. But because it competes with Google Docs’ sweet spot-casual use by consumers-it’s more likely to be a foundation piece of Albany.
Google Docs is a suite of on-demand applications letting users create documents, spreadsheets and presentations, which represents low-level online competition to Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. User documents are stored online and can accessed from any browser. Users can invite others to view and make changes to their documents.
What may also be a core part of the Albany project is SharePoint Server 2007, a collaboration and content management server that also includes search.
Helm said Microsoft has already done pieces of the online work with this latest version, including the addition of an online spreadsheet capability and a Windows Live writer positioned as a blogging tool provides some word processing capabilities.
“Microsoft has the raw materials to make a Works-like online suite,” Helm said. “So I assume that’s what is going to happen with Albany.”
What not to expect
What likely will not be in the Albany stack, analysts said, is Microsoft Office, the hugely successful office productivity suite that includes the Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook applications used by enterprises around the globe.
“They do want to do something that is not completely separate from Office, but not the functional equivalent to Office online,” said RedMonk analyst James Governor. “Microsoft has written its Office code to run on a local machine. … to offer [better] run times would be biting off an interesting engineering project. How do you make it collaborative and offer the run times people expect … and at least try to replicate the same user interface metaphor[?] So it’s partly an engineering challenge, but it’s also a business challenge. Microsoft doesn’t want to cannibalize its own [Office] offering.”
What Microsoft does want to do is compete more effectively with Google-and not where one might think, according to Helm. While Office is an immensely successful office productivity suite in multiple areas, Microsoft’s main goal in fending off Google is to protect its place in the enterprise.
“The No. 1 imperative [for Microsoft] with Google is keeping Google out of the enterprise,” Helm said. “So Microsoft has to meet Google halfway. They introduced Hotmail free for universities. They don’t want Google to take off there. But when it comes to consumers it’s not as clear that Microsoft needs to fight ‘mano-a-mano’ with Google.”
While much has been written about Google Docs’ effectiveness as a free office productivity suite, Helm said Microsoft has one weapon that Google doesn’t: the OEM channel that ships Microsoft’s office productivity software installed on millions of computers.
“That’s a lot less powerful tool than it was 10 years ago, but it’s still a pretty incredible weapon,” Helm said. “So it turns out that Microsoft might not have to turn to online applications. They might just have to make their PC bundled apps more attractive.”
Project Albany, if it indeed turns out to be an online productivity suite aimed at consumers and small businesses, would not be Microsoft’s first attempt to beat Google Docs. Three or four years ago the company considered developing a project called XDocs, but that project was killed because of the threat to Office, according to Helm. “There was no internal political backing to have this project see the light of day,” he said.