Software QualityBy Baselinemag | Posted 2007-08-22 Email Print
The search giant's release of free spreadsheets and word processors has been a hit with small businesses. But will it play in larger enterprises?
Microsoft may not be the world's most innovative software company—it was behind Lotus in spreadsheets, WordPerfect in word processing, Apple in user interfaces and Netscape in browsers.
But what it lacks in originality, Microsoft makes up in sheer determination. The company is like the successful restaurateur who is periodically outshone by trendy new rivals, but who still shows up at 6 a.m. to make sure everything about the restaurant is shipshape, and who gradually appropriates the most popular offerings of competitors. Before long, he not only has the best menu in town but is successful enough to buy up the surrounding real estate and prevent any other restaurants from opening.
At Microsoft, that sort of fearsome work ethic and long-term focus has helped turn products like Excel, Word and PowerPoint into dominant standards. Some critics say Microsoft's real advantage lies elsewhere—in its high-pressure business tactics, made possible by a cash hoard that once totaled $56 billion.
But that perspective doesn't give Microsoft's technology its due. Excel and Word are both feature-rich applications that have become as valuable to power users as they are to casual ones. Excel, for instance, has security controls that could let a division head, in a conference call, open up different parts of a spreadsheet to the chief financial officer and to two regional sales managers.
"One of the things that doesn't get brought up in this," says Forrester analyst Rob Koplowitz, "is that Microsoft Office is a really good set of software."
Indeed, even Google doesn't dispute the quality of Microsoft's products.
"Microsoft has great software," says Matthew Glotzbach, director of product development for Google Enterprise. "By no means would I disparage their technology." The Google Docs & Spreadsheets application acknowledges the pre-eminence of Word and Excel by mimicking their look and feel. Google's version of presentation software, expected soon, will likely do the same, by mimicking PowerPoint.
Still, Google is not so much trying to match Microsoft feature for feature as it is placing a bet on a new way that people are using software, to collaborate online.
"I call this an asymmetric warfare strategy on Google's part," says Gartner's Austin. It is an approach that says the future will be less about individual productivity and more about the sort of joint project work that has made Wikipedia into such a sensational success. Last fall, Google bought a wiki editor called JotSpot, and it won't be long before Google adds its wiki editor to the tools it offers users. Indeed, when it comes to online collaboration, many analysts say that Google's approach is superior, allowing for real-time updating of shared documents, a big improvement over the tedious process of passing around Microsoft documents as attachments, and cheaper than investing in some newer Microsoft products that simplify collaboration, like SharePoint.
Google's facility with collaboration doesn't change the fact that a complicated Excel document—say, one that uses a pivot table—may lose some fidelity when viewed as a Google spreadsheet. But that is a chance Google seems willing to take for now—that most users aren't using its productivity applications for anything too fancy. "We're solving the problem for what most people are going to use," Glotzbach says. "If you're going to do hard-core pivot tables, then Google Spreadsheets probably isn't for you at this time."