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Looking at the prospect of a
Google office suite
, and at how that package might
in competition with Microsoft’s Office, requires at least a five-point examination.

A credible competitor for Microsoft’s Office must offer good answers to questions concerning application design, user training, enterprise process customization, data control and client computer support.

Whatever Microsoft’s recent sins may have been in the realm of anti-competitive behavior, the company unquestionably earned its edge in the market for mainstream office applications on graphical user interface machines.

Two decades ago, Microsoft made major investments of talent and time in creating its Word and Excel for the Macintosh, in the brief but exciting epoch when only Apple’s machine offered a mass-market testbed for interactive ideas that had never before been realized on an affordable PC.

Whether the Mac owes its continuing viability to Microsoft’s investments is perhaps the Mac community’s most inconvenient and uncomfortable truth.

Microsoft annoyed some members of the Macintosh community (this writer among them) by putting a higher priority on innovation than on conformance with platform conventions.

For example, Microsoft Word 3.0 on the Macintosh pioneered interactive customizable menus in the late 1980s, but in the process it violated the standard Macintosh mechanism for putting the contents of menus in standardized resource files.

Very quickly, though, there were more Word users benefiting from Microsoft’s more accessible customization methods than there had ever been Macintosh users who actually altered menu content or behavior with Apple’s standard but cryptic tools.

Microsoft has continued to set application design standards—in the sense of defining what people expect, if not always what people like—with its Office applications and their “Insert Object” and “Paste Special” and “Tools | Options” commands.

In the process, to be sure, Microsoft has spawned a minor industry of teaching users how to work around or disable some of Microsoft’s inventions—for example, the oft-undesired selection of whole words when dragging the mouse through text, or the AutoCorrect and AutoFormat behaviors that some Word users don’t realize they can selectively turn off.

Even so, for people who turn out uncountable variations of a relatively small number of complex document types, the customizable behaviors of applications like Word would be hard to give up.

Would-be competitors must take care not to dismiss too lightly these features: Even if any one user only employs a small fraction of Word’s options or Excel’s functions and commands, the repertoire used by any given user are likely to be critical to that user.

Moreover, many of these customizations only work well because the average user’s machine has vastly more processing power and memory at its disposal than any plausible technology forecast in 1986 would ever have placed on the desk of the mainstream office worker of 2006.

Will enterprises go for Google’s apps? Click here to read more.

Some of the most appealing features of each successive major update of Microsoft Office have been those that took notice of quantum jumps in desktop and laptop capability.

Matching the interactive speed and the increasingly global scope of these office power tools will challenge the skills of developers who are trying to deliver functionality through a wire instead of through a high-speed processor cache and memory bus.

Ironically, though, Microsoft may be making itself vulnerable with the dramatic redesign of the Office user interface in the forthcoming Office 2007.

Whether Office 2007 is better, or not, it certainly is different—and Microsoft may find itself, not for the first time, competing harder against its own installed base than against any other entrant into the market.

Office 97 is alive and well on many desktops. Meanwhile, as long as Microsoft is daring to make things look and behave differently than before, the barriers to entry into the office applications market are pushed that much lower for everyone else—and the benefits that other applications might offer of remote sessions available from any Web kiosk, or integrated collaboration aids built in from the bottom up, may seem to shine more brightly than before.

Next Page: Data control and privacy concerns.

Also vital to consider is the degree to which tools like Word and Excel have become, to a large extent, the equivalent of extensions to the Windows operating system from the viewpoint of many custom application developers.

Microsoft Office facilities for automation, and for integrating complex data manipulations or workflow operations into the same familiar look and feel idioms that users already know, have made the Word document and the Excel notebook the equivalent of high-level data structures that many custom applications use to generate formatted and easily edited output in contexts that range from document production to software development.

This means that the installed base of Microsoft’s Office applications is one of enterprise custom code as well as of user skills, facing would-be entrants with a double-edged weapon against their encroachment on Microsoft’s turf.

Working both for and against Microsoft is the issue of who owns the work product that the user creates. Working with applications delivered as a service means running the data in work products through more different physical places, and many more different owners’ cyberspaces, than working with applications that are fully contained on a client machine.

The slow pace of adoption of authenticated and encrypted e-mail is bad enough, but at least there are tools that can scan attached Microsoft Office files and warn, for example, that a document is being sent out with multiple users’ revisions (especially deletions) not assimilated, or with fast-save artifacts accessible to anyone with the wit to open a document with a text editor instead of with Word.

When the entire data stream of work in progress is being run through externally hosted applications, the legitimate concerns of data control and privacy become substantially broader and more intense.

Working against Microsoft, though, is end-user and enterprise resentment of Microsoft document formats that are not fully disclosed or that harbor proprietary or perhaps royalty-bearing protocols.

These (i) create pressure for across-the-board application updates, even when many users have no need for new features, and (ii) limit the ability of governments and other users to meet goals of vendor neutrality in the delivery of content to the largest possible universe of users.

The ugly and noisy elephant in Microsoft’s living room, though, is the groundswell of interest from enterprise and campus system administrators and from self-supporting individual and small business users for office applications that don’t consistently tilt toward power and convenience and away from security and stability.

The rogues’ gallery of devastating malware attacks is largely a catalog of the ways that Microsoft task automation features were suborned— with startling ease—by the first malware author who thought to try it.

Applications that are designed to live on the Net, and to offer convenient but secure collaboration and to transmit content with no technical possibility of also bearing vectors of malicious attack, are therefore finding a receptive audience.

Click here to read about Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols’ thoughts on Google’s office suite.

What, then, are the marching orders for Those Who Would Become, so to speak, Official Alternatives?

  • They must be just as attractive and intuitive as Office 2007, and no more disruptive in their departures from interface conventions that people already know.
  • They must make efficient use of bandwidth, and take advantage of the continuing bandwidth explosion, to be just as interactive without needing to live and run on a rich client.
  • They must use rapidly advancing standards-based technologies of scripting and Web service interfaces to enable powerful and cost-effective customization;
  • They must offer security in managing work products and intermediate data, while also offering the long-term assurance and competitive vigor that come with standard document formats.
  • They must clearly and unequivocally demonstrate that they recognize and protect against the threats of the always-connected computing environment.

    All of these things are possible, and that means that Office 2007 is threatened as no version of Office has ever really been before.

    Click here for an archive of Peter Coffee’s columns.

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