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Wednesday, 07 June 2006 19:00

Google Spreadsheet fuss beyond belief


A few months ago a co-worker sent me a link to an Ajax based online word processor called Ajax Write  with a message about how brilliant it was. I went to the site full of excited expectation and opened the word processor thinking to myself, "Ah Microsoft what are you going to do now?" Within an instant, I knew the answer. Microsoft does not need to do a thing right now about any competition coming from the online crowd.

See our poll Is a Google Spreadsheet a significant threat to Microsoft Excel?

 Leaving aside sluggish online performance, the so-called online word processor did not even have the functionality of Wordpad let alone Word. I pointed this out to my friend and he said, "But that's the future!" Maybe, but it sure isn't the present.

Likewise, all the hype that has been generated about the new Google Spreadsheets is sheer rubbish. All the reports I've received from those "lucky" enough to sample the new product say that it does not even have the basic functionality of the very earliest versions of Excel. Google also owns an Ajax-based word processor called Writely. I wouldn't expect too much from that product in a hurry either.

binocs Heck, word processors and spreadsheets are complex applications. They're hard enough to build for the desktop let alone the online space. Just ask Microsoft or, if you don't believe them, ask the Open Office crowd. Office productivity applications like Word and Excel and their open source competitors are the product of years of iterative development. And still we grumble about how imperfect they are.

Despite all of this, as soon as Google releases a rudimentary - some might even call it experimental - online spreadsheet, the world goes stir crazy. The media jumps on it and calls it the "Excel killer". One can imagine company book keepers and financial strategists taking a cursory look at Google Spreadsheets with a smirk and saying to themselves: "They're just kidding, right?"

Just for the fun of it, let's suppose that this new Google product does somehow gain the functionality and performance to start matching it with Excel. Will that mean that Microsoft will lose many of its customers overnight? Not at all. Open has a free spreadsheet that is largely compatible with Excel and arguably almost as good. The same can be said for its word processor. Yet people still stick with their Microsoft Office products. They're just that little bit better and, for most users, that one per cent or two of incompatibility is not worth the hassle for a few hundred bucks, especially if you're a business that has years of intellectual capital tied up in your office documents.

Even Google itself says that it's not trying to compete with Excel. The implication is that Google Spreadsheet is for the casual user. But how many users do you know who have ever used a spreadsheet casually? For that matter, what exactly is the purpose of having an online wordprocessor? Local storage is so cheap and small, why would we even bother trying to do online what we can do locally?

This is not to say by any stretch that Google's online applications, besides its fantastic search engine, are no good. Many of them are great. Gmail, Google Maps, Google Earth, Google News, the new Google Calendar, even Google Talk are all good and potentially great applications that are more suited to the online space than the desktop. But putting office productivity tools online, for the moment at least, is like trying to launch an aeroplane into outer space.



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Stan Beer


Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.




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