The Thinker

The hidden power of Google Docs

The application designers at Google rarely fail to disappoint. Some of their products have failed to capture much market attention, but all of them have been interesting. If their designers are disappointed that useful applications like Froogle have not captured the public’s fancy, other ideas like Google Earth and Google Maps swept us away.

I have spent quite a bit of time lately looking at and pondering Google’s recent offerings. This weekend I belatedly signed up for a Google GMail account. I do not know why I procrastinated so long. Admittedly, it is not a perfect application. The ads served based on the content of my email still spook me a bit. I am also a bit leery leaving all my email on their servers, no matter how convenient it is to search my email using their search engine. While their privacy policy looks reassuring enough, there is no law that requires Google to keep my email messages private. Since the NSA arm-twisted telephone companies like Verizon into opening up their calling records, in spite of the illegality of doing so at the time, I have to wonder whether Big Brother is also searching my GMail.

Still, GMail is slick. Spending some time using it makes you shrug off your paranoia. In fact, once you have it, it is hard to revert. Like all Google products, GMail is hardly flashy. Google likes white backgrounds, ordinary fonts and lots of white space in its pages. However, Google is not after flashiness; it excels at usefulness. While I can bemoan their capability to search my private email messages, having it hosted inside their 3 gigabytes of free server space also means that all my mail is available wherever I can access the web. The first time GMail threaded my email I was jolted, then I wondered why email programs generally do not thread email.

GMail has many other useful features. If your cell phone is Internet capable, you can receive and reply to email on your cell phone. Its spam detection is excellent. You can segregate important emails by “starring” them. You can teach GMail to assign labels to various kinds of emails. In fact, “email” is a word that Google makes obsolete. Since all your emails are threaded, it correctly refers to your email box as a collection of “conversations”. Importing my address book, a fundamental step for being useful, was not much of a chore. I simply exported my address book from my email client into tab-delimited files, and then read them into GMail. I can use it as a vacation responder. I can POP (download) email from other accounts, or download my GMail into my email client through a secure POP connection. I can add filters to segregate common kinds of emails. Many third party applications have been written for GMail. For example, you can install a notifier program. It tells you when you have new mail by placing an icon in your system tray. However, you may not want to install the notifier. Simply leave GMail in a browser tab and the tab title will let you know if you have new email. What is the cost for all this wonderfulness? Aside from the minimal advertising, unless you want to use more than 3 gigabytes of server space, it is free.

GMail lead me to try out Google’s news feed reader called Google Reader. Previously I had been using the now antiquated Bloglines as my web-based newsreader. Google Reader is magnitudes better than Bloglines. Adding a new feed is easy, and if you are having trouble thinking of a feed to add you can select from a list of canned feeds organized by category. Your Google Reader home page consolidates a list of recent feeds for your easy viewing. As you scroll down through a feed, Google Reader assumes you have read the item. You can “star” items in the feed like you can emails. By “starring” them, they become the equivalent of temporary bookmarks. Of course, all your feeds are instantly searchable. In addition, you can choose to share with your feeds with friends. Of all the newsreaders I have used, both web based and installed, Google Reader is by far the most usable. As with GMail, if I have a browser, I have instant access to all my news feeds.

Google has many other interesting applications, many of which have yet to take off. The Google Talk application is a Johnny come lately. With AOL and Yahoo holding dominance in these markets, it is unclear how it can overtake them. (There is an open application programming interface (API) for Google Talk, which could help.) However, if you can convince your friends to use Google Talk, you have one interesting feature: the ability to transparently save and search your own chat sessions. Google’s language translation tool, built into its search engine, is eerily accurate. Google has purchased some of its competition. As you may have heard, Google now owns Blogger and YouTube. Its attempt to compete with Windows on the desktop has thus far proven futile. However, its Google Desktop Search tool allows you to search your own computer with transparent ease.

What is Google’s next big thing? I think it is already here. It is Google Docs and Spreadsheets, soon to be renamed Google Docs. It aims to be a web-ified version of Microsoft Office. Should Microsoft be worried? No, they should be panicked. They should be panicked not because Google Docs will likely be able to build a better word processor or spreadsheet (although that may emerge over time) but because for most of us 90% of the functionality is more than adequate and free is an excellent price. Microsoft should also be worried because these documents inherently reside inside the Google hive. Consequently, they are easily and transparently shareable. Microsoft may be worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and its MSN network may be impressive, but it is a 98-pound weakling in the infrastructure hosting business. Google is the 800-pound gorilla. Moreover, Google Docs has something in common with Google Talk and, in fact, many of its applications. It has an API that can manipulate it. This means we are likely to see all sorts of small but clever applications used to serve particular vertical markets that will be at its core Google Docs documents.

Most computer users understand spreadsheets. Keeping track of tabular data (data formatted in rows and columns) is now second nature. Yet a database, even a simple one like Microsoft Access, is still relatively complex and generally too much trouble to use for the sharing data. Extensible Markup Language (XML), while certainly portable and easy to read, is still not simple to consume or process for a particular use. It depends on relatively sophisticated programs on both the sending and receiving end to make use of the data. A Google Docs spreadsheet on the other hand, needs no installation. If you can use Word or Excel, you can quickly learn to use a Google docs word processor or spreadsheet. If your use is personal, it does not cost any money. Since it is hosted in the Google infrastructure, you can easily share your Google Docs, unlike Microsoft Office documents. Generally, if you want to share these documents, you email them. And when you email them, you lose your ability to update them. This is not true when they exist inside Google.

Consequently, Google Docs is something of its own platform, but since it is an open platform anyone can write an application that works with it. You can sort of do this with Microsoft Office, but you have to write to a Microsoft API (generally Visual Basic for Applications). Google Docs is easier to interact with than XML documents (in fact, Google Docs stores its documents as XML) and can be programmatically extended using open source AJAX technology and the Google Docs API. Once this fact sinks in, Google Docs should become the de-facto means of sharing relatively simple structured data. It will create a brand new market that will make it easy to collaborate online using readily understood metaphors (spreadsheets, documents, presentations).

This is something Microsoft cannot presently do except through some of its costly and proprietary solutions. To even compete in this new market would take Microsoft many years, and would probably not succeed, given Google’s gigantic head start. It is likely that in time Google Docs (perhaps assisted by the OpenOffice suite) will crack the Microsoft Office monopoly. If you are a business, the fact that Google Docs is already hosted may very well be compelling. Why pay people to go around, install and troubleshoot Microsoft Office when they could do the same work online with just a browser? Whatever Google charges for a commercial service will likely be a small fraction of Microsoft’s costs. Moreover, you will not have to pay a help desk to support these applications.

Often it is the prosaic things endure the longest. Documents and spreadsheets are prosaic, but essential to information sharing. We were wowed a couple years back by Google Earth. I think that Google Docs, by extending the Google infrastructure to the applications level, will be seen as Google’s most significant innovation since its search engine. While it may not kill Microsoft, Microsoft may well emerge a shadow of its former self.


One Response to “The hidden power of Google Docs”

  1. 1:22 pm on September 21 2007, Franco Folini said:

    I would like to share my experience with Google Docs. There are cases where, not by design, but thanks to some bug in the Google code, our privacy can be compromised. I personally experienced one interesting bug: I found 3 documents in my Google Docs folder that were not mine. I guess some other user is missing 3 documents or, even worst, he/she doesn’t know I received a copy of them in my folder.

    You can read the complete story on my blog:

    Google Docs Security Seriously Compromised?

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