Google Spreads Out

A Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) G-spreadsheet? Say it isn't so! Just kidding, of course -- this hardly seems like a shocking development.

Ever since Google announced its acquisition of Writely, through which it could provide a Web-based word processing program, it seemed to me a foregone conclusion that it would try to take other, related tools off people's desktops and onto the Web through their browsers -- and possibly liberate them from their reliance on rival Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) .

As a longtime Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) user, I can see the logic. I've never been particularly thrilled that to be compatible with the rest of the world, I had to purchase Microsoft Office for Mac. I like the idea of eventual Web-based compatibility of certain functions across operating systems -- although, let's face it, many Web apps do still tend to focus on the big player, Microsoft Windows, and for good reason, considering it's still the top dog.

Still, I have my doubts as to whether Google's word processing or spreadsheet products will really make it with consumer, much less business, users. First off, a reality check is in order -- love it or hate it, Microsoft's Word and Excel are the programs most of us are used to. Some of us probably even feel like we grew up with them. I admit that I stink at using Excel in the ways it is intended, but I know plenty of people who can manipulate that spreadsheet program like there's no tomorrow. That said, I'm fairly sure it would take a pretty darn innovative tool to woo the Excel experts of the world -- and so far, it seems that Google's spreadsheet is in beta in the true sense of the word. Apparently, it has less functionality than Excel, although its strong point is sharing so that multiple users can easily access and edit spreadsheets.

Secondly, there's still the specter of privacy that I believe is a pretty big risk to many of Google's products. When the U.S. government asked for Google's search data several months ago, it emphasized a very important element of Google's business that many of us might have previously shrugged off: that the search company gathers and stores user data. It's a bit of a catch-22; while such aggregation helps make its products useful (to us as well as to advertisers, of course), it also brings the privacy issue into sharp relief, especially when one considers anything that might make personal data less secure.

Even though I'm a Gmail user and am inclined to think that many of Google's product ideas tend to be groovy and even gutsy, I can't help occasionally feeling uneasy about the idea that Google's aggregating my personal data, not to mention more important information than, say, making dinner plans. (OK, so that's creepy, too.) Meanwhile, there are other concerns; for example, what if there are outages or glitches and users can't access their documents or spreadsheet data? Last but certainly not least, does anybody really want to be served up ads while they're using a word processing or spreadsheet program?

It seems clear that Google's hoping, at least, that people won't mind advertising in their documentation, just as they haven't minded it in their search results or Web-based email. After all, it's also clear that the new spreadsheet is envisioned to be "free," and we all know that Google's free products have not only been about giving people access to organized information, but also about providing advertisers with a way to reach those people, a right they're willing to pay for. But again, for important documentation, I'd guess that most people prefer not to deal with the advertising noise that they're willing to put up with for the aforementioned search results and email. That seems even more likely if Google hopes to push this type of product to corporate clients, who seem the most likely candidates for spreadsheet programs.

For these reasons, I think that at this juncture the idea of people blowing off Word and Excel and using browser-based products for their important documents is an overblown prospect, even if it's a Googly one. (Some of us may think lots of things about Google are overblown, of course, like its share price.) Maybe some tools aren't quite ready to leave the desktop.

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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.


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