Google plugs along in apps market

Google, like any vendor, is immersed in improving its applications and remaining competitive

Two years ago, when Google took its first steps in the office productivity market, the move generated much buzz, mostly because it was seen as another competitive clash with Microsoft.

Adding to the novelty, Google opted for a software-as-a-service strategy, hosting the applications on its servers and offering them via Web browsers. Google described this model as the future and portrayed as old-school the Microsoft Office architecture, in which software lives on PC hard drives.

For Google, it all started in March 2006, when it acquired Upstartle and its Writely Web-hosted word processor, a move followed months later with the launch of the spreadsheet application and the subsequent combination of the two into the free Docs suite. Docs later gained a presentations application a la PowerPoint and became part of the broader collaboration and communication suite Google Apps.

Now, the buzz has quieted down and Google, like any vendor, is immersed in improving its applications and remaining competitive. Microsoft is finally Web-enabling its Office suite via Office Live Workspace, while other strong competitors in the hosted productivity market, like Zoho, are credible rivals.

This week, as Google announced enhancements to its spreadsheet program, IDG News Service chatted with Jonathan Rochelle, senior product manager for Google Docs, about various challenges, like Microsoft's threat in the hosted space and the difficulty of supporting millions of users.

Here is an edited version of the conversation:

Google Docs' users seem very interested in being able to work with the applications when they aren't online. What's the status for adding offline capabilities to Google Docs?

We've definitely heard that. It's a very popular request. We're pursuing it. It's not done, but we're working on it.

Are you still planning to base the offline capabilities on the Google Gears technology?

Yes, so far that's the foundation, to try to make it consistent with the other products and with how they operate.

Docs users often must export documents to Microsoft Office for more advanced tasks, like formatting and layouts. Is your goal to build up Docs' feature set so that users don't need to toggle between it and Office?

I've heard that at times. I can relate to that in some cases. I've been using Office and other offline products for many years and sometimes it takes a while to understand how or whether you can do [certain things] with other apps. So to the extent that [not having a popular feature] is painful for users, yes, we're going to pursue easing that pain so they can do other things. To the extent that it's very a specific and niche [function], like something some users may need for extensive styling or things that are a bit more specific, we probably wouldn't do it just for the sake of [matching Office feature by feature]. But the goal is definitely to ease the user experience and make it so it's very simple for users to get what they want.

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Juan Carlos Perez

IDG News Service
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