Sleeping with the Enemy: Google + Microsoft Office

Sleeping with the Enemy: Google + Microsoft Office

Can Google succeed where Netscape, Linux and others have failed?

As you might expect, this week's Google I/O conference has triggered a reevaluation of the search giant's many products and services, especially those that compete directly with Microsoft. And while Google didn't mention "Microsoft" almost at all, the word "Office" was bandied about quite a bit. What is Google up to here?

If you followed Google's keynote at IO on Wednesday, or at least read my competitive overview in Google I/O 2014: Android Takes the L, you know that the big focus of this year's show was Android's expansion into non-traditional devices. Yes, Android is a big part of Google's overall strategy, but it's only a part, and the firm of course has an amazing array of online services and even other (increasingly complementary) platforms like Chrome OS. And as someone who sees technology through a Microsoft lens, one of the things that really struck me during the I/O keynote was a brief but telling discussion about Google's office productivity offerings for individuals, education, and business.

I understand that the world is changing, but I've held onto to the notion that Microsoft Office is essentially unassailable. It has withstood any variety of paid and free challengers in the office productivity space since its gestation, and Microsoft has done a very credible job of adapting this most traditional of software to the modern services world in recent years. From my perspective as a professional writer and daily Office user, there's Office and then there's everything else.

Of course, that view requires one to be locked into a certain way of doing things or at least require some of the more advanced features that are only offered by Office. Really, this is the same argument that we're having about the supposed death of the PC: No, it's not going away, but an increasingly large part of the user base either doesn't need a PC or only needs a PC rarely because they can do what they need to do on simpler devices. With Office, it's that most people simply don't need professional office productivity software, or if they do, they only need it occasionally.

The business world skews things for both PCs and Office, of course. But the danger to Microsoft is that for a coming generation of office workers who are not used to Windows PCs and full Office, but are instead very much used to simpler devices and light office productivity services and mobile apps, the old rules are increasingly out of date. What you or I may think of as an absolute certainty—the versatility of Windows, perhaps, or the power of Office—is just not part of the discussion when it comes to this new generation weaned on Google services and Apple or, increasingly, Android-based devices.

For Google, the opportunity is obvious: Through the proliferation of its devices and services, it can make Office and Microsoft's other platforms less necessary. And it can do so while building its own office productivity solutions that will mature over time and ultimately offer the most popular features of Office. As with Apple, Google is finding its way into Microsoft's last bastion—businesses—simply through the popularity of its devices and (usually free) services.

For Microsoft, the goal is to adapt to a changing world. We know the firm is busy bringing its online services to all popular mobile platforms via apps, and is no longer pushing a "Windows first"—let alone "Windows only"—strategy. And a big part of that is Office: The number of Office and Office-related mobile apps available for iPhone, iPad and Android handsets and tablets has multiplied dramatically over the past year. Office for iPad is currently the crown jewel, but this product is coming to Android tablets soon too, of course.

The question is whether it's too late and whether Google's "good enough" services are, well, literally good enough.

To date they haven't been. Google Docs—which I'll use as the collective name for Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides, plus related mobile apps of the same names—offers basic office productivity functionality and the expected integration with Google Drive, the firm's cloud storage solution. But Microsoft Office compatibility has been an issue. When you open a Word document, say, in Google Docs, that document is converted to Google Docs for editing. And while you can later export it to Word format again, it will have lost much of the original formatting—not to mention key Word features like author comments—during all the round-tripping.

This PowerPoint presentation has mangled fonts and layout in Google's web viewer

For people who don't need Office compatibility, this isn't an issue. But in the education, government and business markets where Office compatibility is still an obvious requirement, that kind of behavior is unacceptable. So Google made some progress on its own and then in 2012 it purchased QuickOffice, which made a mobile productivity app suite that offered better Microsoft Office compatibility. At Google I/O earlier this month, the firm noted that QuickOffice-based compatibility updates were being added to the web-based Google Docs services as well as the mobile apps on both iOS (iPhone and iPad) and Android (phones and tablets).

"One of the common use cases we run into in companies ... is that they run into [Microsoft] Office files," Google senior VP Sundar Pichai said during the keynote. "It's a very common experience for all of us. And we want to make sure as we bring Android for work, [Microsoft] Office work seamlessly ... Today we are announcing native [Microsoft] Office editing built within the Google Docs suite of editors."

To be clear, he means Google Docs on the web and in the iOS- and Android-based mobile apps. He means no more converting back and forth to Office formats, and no more round-tripping compatibility issues. But the level to which Google will deliver on this promise is presently a bit of a gray area. The updates to the web apps are available now, and the mobile app updates are out now on Android and coming soon on iOS.

I was able to get my borked PowerPoint presentation into Slides with a bit of wrangling, and it looks normal enough.

Same PowerPoint presentation in Google Slides, looking normal

But it's still not quite there for all use cases, of course. Google notes that if you want to collaborate seamlessly with others at the same time on Office documents, you must "simply convert the files to Docs, Sheets or Slides" first. That commenting functionality is available on the web only at the moment. And I suspect that if I tried hard enough, I could find issues in complex documents. Would my 500+ page books work in Google Docs? I'll find out.

But investigating the availability of this stuff did get me thinking. Microsoft of course already makes high-quality Office Web Apps—Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote—available for free as part of Office Online. And while it didn't get a ton of press at the time, the firm made these web apps available to Chrome OS/Chromebook users through the Chrome Web Store back in April. So Microsoft is quickly filling in the gaps on Google's platforms when it comes to basic Office functionality.

Today, Microsoft doesn't offer a complete story. Office Mobile (and a standalone OneNote app) is available for free on Android handsets and looks and works much like Office Mobile on iPhone and Windows Phone. Which is to say not horribly, the strong point being that using the app to edit Office documents won't ruin the underlying structure and formatting in any way. Microsoft gets the round-tripping bit right.

On Android-based tablets, a full Office similar to that for the iPad is coming this year. It should be functionality identical, which is to say excellent. But it's not free: Users will need an Office 365 subscription of some kind to use this full-featured set of apps.

And for Chrome OS/Chromebook, there's Office Web Apps (or what's sort of called Office Online now). They're free and offer a very reasonable feature set. But they can't (yet?) be used offline, which is obviously a key bit of functionality on Chrome OS, which currently lives or dies by your Internet connection.

As it does with everything else, Google improves Chrome OS over time too, of course. And more and more, we're starting to see offline capabilities in the "apps" that Google offers to users through its Chrome Web Store. So that situation improves over time. Looked at from a higher level, however, a modern Chromebook presents a surprisingly familiar environment, one that looks and works a lot like Windows 7, with a Start menu-like apps launcher pop-up, a taskbar-like shelf, and even a tray notification area with clock, battery life and network connectivity widgets.

Chrome OS falls apart from a usability perspective in some ways of course, as this Windows 7-like cover sheen is pretty much the entire UI aside from the web browser and browser-based windows used by web apps and app-like utilities. But again, we need to look at this through the lens of the typical user, one who in many cases can do most of what they need to do on a smart phone or tablet. For these users, turning to a laptop to get some work done—perhaps write a term paper or make a presentation—requires a small mental shift, and they probably won't care or notice the difference between this and Windows.

Also, there are bits to Chrome OS that make the experience even more Windows like, though you currently have to really know what you're doing and be willing to make per-app configuration changes. For example, when you right-click on a web app shortcut in that Start menu-like launcher pop-up, you can choose whether that app will open as a regular or pinned browser tab (in Chrome), as a (floating) window, or as a maximized window.

The first two options open the app in a Chrome browser window, which is weird and feel constraining. But the latter two open the app in a separate, independent window that makes the whole environment feel more familiar and like Windows.

Likewise, any app that can be added to launcher can be pinned to the shelf (aka taskbar), which will likewise be more familiar for Windows users. And these two features combined—"normal" app windows and pinned app shortcuts—make the Office Online experience more natural. That is, unless you're a real power user, you might think you're using real Word, Excel, PowerPoint or OneNote, even though you're "just" using a web app. (Ditto for OneDrive.)

So what are we to make of all this?

On one level, Microsoft bringing Office to Android and Chrome OS in this way makes it easier for the users of these services—Office/Office Online, OneDrive—to continue using them on other platforms. So you can mix and match between, say, a Windows PC, an Android tablet and an iPhone if you wanted. But more negatively, it also reduces the "stickiness" of Windows: When it comes time to replace that PC, many users will opt for something else, perhaps an inexpensive Chromebook. And that's just Microsoft's core user base. Remember, for many in that coming generation of productivity workers, Office and Windows is already not part of the conversation.

I still believe that "real" Office is important and viable. And stating that Office is technologically superior to the competition is arguably not even an opinion, but is rather a simple fact. But "good enough" may eventually win the day here, and though that was never good enough for Linux, it may be for Google. This is something I'll be watching very closely, on both Android and Chrome OS.

TAGS: Office 365
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