Google takes on Office, then world -- just not today

SearchOpenSource.com's Jack Loftus wonders if a recent and much-anticipated Sun-Google announcement aimed at rattling Microsoft's dominant position on the desktop will live up to the hype that surrounded it.

If an all-out offensive against Microsoft's dominant position in the office productivity market can be considered

one of the first steps on the road to global domination, then the old discussion forum joke about Google's plans to take over the world came one step closer to reality this month.

Jack Loftus

Well, that is, they would have, if Google had announced a new collaborative office suite product with Sun at a much-hyped press conference held earlier this month. But they didn't.

Instead, a world waiting for something in line with Sun president Jonathan Schwartz's blog remarks ("the world changes this week") received news that the Google Toolbar would be more widely available than it had been ever before.

While handy in a pinch, Google Toolbar is not the dark horse in the war to unseat Microsoft Office -- a war many analysts and online columnists were ready to declare should an office product from Google have magically appeared at the Computer History Museum in early October.

Stamford, Conn.-based research group Gartner Inc. was one of the first independent groups to jump on the bandwagon. In an analysis, the group panned the immediate news, then promised users that a broader trend now existed, whereby more vendors are offering Office-like, lightweight desktop tools delivered as services.

As examples of where partnerships like this one could lead, Gartner pointed to Yahoo's new mail client, which is based on Ajax, as are Google's Gmail and Maps applications, and MSN's upcoming, unofficial work on a new Hotmail client.

That's the beginning of how the world is going to change? Google and Sun Microsystems jointly offer online word processing and spreadsheet functions, and in turn Google CEO Eric Schmidt said his company would promote and distribute Sun's OpenOffice software for PCs.

A direct challenge to Microsoft's Office products? Sort of, but not really.

Following the announcement, it is possible that dozens of journalists simultaneously reached for their delete keys and erased paragraph after paragraph of prepared notes for a story that never came.

No doubt there were also countless blog posts announcing the war for the office had begun that will never be realized. In their stead were posts, like Gartner's, that complained of a letdown.

Maybe Google would have been better off taking a page from Apple's iPod playbook. While nothing special, an "iBar" would have at least generated some second day headlines as college students across the U.S. mistook the offering for some kind of online "Slashdot saloon."

But I digress. Even if a comprehensive office suite offering from Google and Sun had been announced, there were some users who questioned whether it would have had the combined clout to go head-to-head with Office.

David C. Niemi, an independent consultant and user of OpenOffice.org on Linux, said while a StarOffice/OpenOffice combination had some functional advantages over Microsoft Office, and on balance was "about as good," it still fell short of having the distinction of being a "no-brainer" alternative to Office.

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"File compatibility is pretty good, but that may not be enough for many people," he said.

Niemi was also curious of the type of role Google could play in the OpenOffice project. "Perhaps they have some clever ideas in mind for integrating e-mail and online files with office applications in a new way, but I don't see the fit [yet]," he said.

Nonetheless, Niemi said the OpenOffice project as a whole was a very strategic one that is moving in the right direction, especially if Microsoft's plans to update its interface with Office 12 don't pan out as intended.

"Microsoft is taking a big gamble with all the changes in Office 12," Niemi said. "If they turn out to be unpopular, it risks a lot more defections. But if the changes streamline Office and make its users much more productive, it could buy itself several more years before again facing meaningful competition."

Meanwhile, Gartner analysts recommend that IT administrators start evaluating how and when to exploit the lightweight, Internet-sourced "office" tools like those from Google, Yahoo and others.

"They are unlikely to replace heavyweight office suites that require local installations, but they will serve as intermittently used temporary alternatives to these suites," the report said.

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