Late last week, Google made another aggressive move to stay ahead of Microsoft in the online productivity tools space by acquiring DocVerse, a startup founded by two former Microsoft employees, known for tools that let users collaborate on Microsoft Office files on the Web.
Google nabbed the three-year-old, San Francisco-based DocVerse for $25 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. What Google gets in return is the technology to make Microsoft Office operate more like Google Docs.
DocVerse provides a 1MB plug-in to Office 2007 that allows users to edit and share Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents online and in real-time with all the features of the Office client versions intact.
Ironically, the acquisition gives Google the authority to let users access full-featured Office files in a Web-based environment before Microsoft does.
Google plans to add the DocVerse functionality to Google Apps for free, but it has not announced when that will take place. Yet one thing's for sure: Google is giving Microsoft no breathing room in the race to bring cloud-based productivity tools to businesses. Just yesterday, Google unveiled an online store called Google Apps Marketplace, where enterprises can buy cloud-based applications designed to work with Google's own apps.
A Body Blow to Microsoft
It's worth noting that Microsoft already provides the same kind of online-collaboration capabilities as Docverse via its free Office Live Workspace service. But this is an offering that Microsoft has barely marketed, likely because with the upcoming Office 2010, arriving in June (May 12 for businesses), Microsoft will include Office Web Apps. These are free, stripped-down online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. If users want the full features of Office 2010 they will still have to buy the full Office 2010 desktop suite.
While Microsoft still has an undeniable lead in the productivity tool space, especially at enterprises, the latest moves by Google turn up the heat. Just as Steve Ballmer announced Microsoft's "all in" commitment to cloud computing last week, Google comes along and integrates online collaboration with Office docs through its own established cloud-based productivity suite and opens up a apps store for businesses.
"I'd say this [Google's Docverse buy] was a body blow to Microsoft," says veteran industry analyst Roger Kay. "Microsoft has to respond as best it can, whether shipping Office 2010 earlier or pushing Office Web Apps more, or both."
Chasing Google's Web Apps
Office still remains Microsoft's main cash cow, along with Windows. It generates 90 percent of the revenue for Microsoft's business division. However, the Office suite faces a variety of growing threats, not only from Google Apps, but also from IBM with LotusLive iNotes and Oracle with its newly announced "Cloud Office."
Kay says that regardless of Microsoft's new devotion to cloud computing, it still runs behind Google when it comes to online collaboration tools.
"Google is always trying to outflank Microsoft," Kay says. "There are a lot of benefits to a client-based collaborative system that synchs periodically via the cloud. Having it as an Office plug-in through Google Apps is pretty sweet."
The Real Problem: Google Incompatibility with Office
Nevertheless, there is a flip side to Google's purchase of DocVerse: It is an acknowledgement by Google that Office is the king of productivity apps and that incompatibility between Office and Google Docs has been a weakness.
Does DocVerse solve this weakness? No, writes PCWorld columnist David Coursey.
DocVerse is essentially an Office add-on that stores files in Google's cloud, writes Coursey. This may help convince Office users to try Google Apps, but it doesn't address the bigger problem of feature and file format incompatibility with Office.
"Limited compatibility with Microsoft Office is a major reason why many Google Apps free and paid customers prefer to use the e-mail and calendar features, but not the word processor, spreadsheet and presentation modules of Google Docs," writes Coursey.
Still Early Going for Google Apps
For the time being Office still dominates at large enterprises. A November survey of 2,000 IT decision-makers by research firm Forrester revealed that 80 percent of companies surveyed support some version of Microsoft Office, and 78 percent have no plans for implementing an alternative to Microsoft Office.
This could change as Google continues to tighten its focus on online collaboration tools for businesses, says Forrester analyst Sheri McLeish. But, she emphasizes, it's still early going for Google Apps.
"Yes, businesses are experimenting with Google Apps, but Google is still trying to sort out its apps and enterprise solution sets."
McLeish adds it's hard for most companies to make the business case to switch tools when users are comfortable and familiar with Office. "Google realizes this," she says, "which is why it is resorting to acquiring a company that basically helps people work online with Office formatted documents."
Clearly Google's long-term goal is to chip away at Microsoft's Office desktop suite dominance, but the DocVerse acquisition doesn't move the ball too far down the field, says McLeish.
"I see this as a complement to Office apps, not a replacement technology," she says.