Google Innovation or Imitation

I've been around the block enough times to know what technology innovations are. I'm all about it and I'd better be. – With over fifteen years of product management experience. Meanwhile, it seems to me that Google Apps folks from the googlelplex are outmoded; worse for techies, they're lagging. In the debate between Google's Shan Sinha and Tom Rizzo, a comment registers whether you can even compare Google's and Microsoft's productivity suites:

“Where Google says their offering does not rely on desktop software - I see lock-in and limited or no offline access let's not <overlook> even the ability for hybrid environments. A lot of 'new' features Google claims are not available in Office - they might be correct, if you're referring to Office 2003.The latest feature in Gmail is the preview pane, so now users can have the same functionality that was available in Outlook 97 or Hotmail. The perception is that Google is the innovator in the cloud apps space, but what we are seeing in business is that they are playing catch-up - and have a long, long way to go. Good on them for trying, but they should get comfortable in that position as Microsoft has the history, experience and strength when it comes to delivering business applications.”—Loryan Strant

What else? What's really there in the cloud hanging over Mountain View?

Let's look at new Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets features, aka “niceties” over the last 12 months.

Niceties for Google Docs
In August 2010, Google introduced the nicety to resize tables in Google Docs. The table resizing functionality is basic to the Office suite. After all, Microsoft had it in Office 2003. Also in August 2010, Google decided to give its users other niceties like the ability to paste drawings into Google Docs. Yes, what a fine capability pasting drawings into Word docs was for Microsoft's customers way back in 2003. Not only that, Word 2003 customers had an entire canvas where they could compose a picture in Word from multiple elements. Nicey-nicey.

The Office suite provides auto-correction of spelling mistakes through Word 2010, Word 2007 and Word 2003. Finally, in November of 2010, Google delivered this most basic feature which customers need to present their work professionally. I can't imagine how much students needed the feature, and as a business user, I can't imagine being without it. As of this week, Google is still having trouble spell-checking English.

Okay, I've got to tell you about my favorite feature introduced for Google Apps recently. In March of this year Google announced the ability to filter data in Google Spreadsheets. As part of my work, I've spent many hours regularly analyzing global customer data. Often, the data sets I've used have had over 15,000 records. If it weren't for Excel's ability to filter data I would have had to purchase a separate statistical software service to help me identify customers with common characteristics. So how have Google Apps customers been analyzing data when they could have been using Excel 2003, Excel 2007, and Excel 2010? In seven years they could have gotten a mountain of work done with Excel in Office. Come on! What kind of value were they really getting from Google Spreadsheets?



Google Gaps
On June 2nd of this year, Google asked its customers what features they wanted and regurgitated an exhausting wish list of 1955 feature requests for Google Apps. The sheer quantity of feature requests shows how far Google Docs is trailing.

Far and away, the most requested feature was “I want Google Docs to be available offline”. It received 1308 votes as compared to 887 votes for the second most requested feature. With that amount of demand, this need for offline access can't be a big surprise to Google, yet it still doesn't have the capability for offline access.

Google left their customers hanging without offline access. In February of 2010, claiming they were close with an HTML5-based solution for working offline, Google stopped investing in Gears, which was providing that capability. In March of 2011 they stopped support of Gears completely, still having no offline solution. In May of this year, at their Google I/O conference, they still did not have the feature and they re-promised it for the summer. Today, Google Apps customers have been without offline access for 18 months and must settle for a band aid approach to offline access, with limitations.

So what feature request was 2nd in popularity, earning 887 votes? It was, “In Gmail, make all Google Docs available as an attachment.  Instead of having to download a Document from Google Docs and then attach that file in my Gmail Compose window, I want an ‘Attach a Google Doc’ paper clip link in my Gmail Compose window.“ It's funny. Microsoft customers had the ability to work offline and the ability to attach documents seven years ago in Office 2003.

Next up, third in demand by users with 829 votes was: “Add better functions for header/footer (page numbering...) “. Today, this very basic feature from computing's “word processing” era still doesn't exist in Google Docs. Oh, wait; there is more that Google Docs customers are asking for. There were 1955 Google Docs feature requests. Here are some in top demand:

  Allow the use of all Google Fonts across all the Google Docs tools.
  Seamless integration between Google Docs tools; i.e., insert part of a spreadsheet into a Document.
  Full Sync between folders on my computer and docs.
  Merge cells vertically in Spreadsheets.
  When converting from a Google doc for export to either .doc or .pdf format some of the formatting is lost especially when it comes to tabs. This needs to be corrected.
  Better fidelity when exporting to/importing from MS Office formats.
  I need to be able to edit Google docs while I am offline and then have it synchronize with the
   docs when I am back online again.

Stay on the trail, Google.

Continue to follow Microsoft.

Find more worn-in features to bring to your Google Docs customers 7 years after we deliver them to ours!

The innovation climate is fine here in Redmond! This year alone, Microsoft is spending 90% of its $9.6 Billion R&D budget on cloud strategies. There is a lot we can achieve with this level of investment in cloud initiatives this year. After all, we know what innovations are—things that are incredibly useful or powerful and new, of course.

Comments (25)

  1. Anonymous says:

    @USC Trojan, M3 Sweatt,@Richard A. Miles,@Kassie Kasselman: What a great discussion. Yes, I agree that making applications more feature-rich is important;it takes a corresponding investment in funding and talent. What are your thoughts about providing business users with a familiar user experience across online and offline (,and about providing a productivity suite that fulfills businesses‘ online and offline needs? ( hope you will also join the conversation on Twitter at…/user.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I see a t-shirt: "Stay on the trail, Google. Continue to follow Microsoft."

  3. Anonymous says:

    @USC Trojan

    By saying that you must compare web apps to web apps you are changing the discussion completely.  I could say, "you must compare desktop apps to desktop apps" and Google would clearly lose.  So, you see, Tony is comparing apples to apples because he is discussing business productivity as the problem — not what platform the solution is built on.

    Personally, I don't care whether I use a native application or a web-based application.  I want the best application.  Every time a challenger comes out against Office, I give them a shot.  If they can do the job better and cheaper then I would be foolish to continue using Office.  Frankly Google Apps isn't even close.  Either the web needs to get better or they need to start making native applications.

    Clearly, Google has some of the smartest minds in the industry, but the unfortunate reality is that Google doesn't seem to have an interest in solving business productivity outside of the web which is extremely limiting.

  4. USC Trojan says:

    While it is safe to compare Google's "Office competitor" to Microsoft Office, it is also important to note that they are doing it all on the web, where Office Web Apps are trailing. Badly.

    Excel, for example, cannot create Pivot Tables, which Google Spreadsheets can. Multi-authoring is enabled, but public editing is not. Sharing is enabled, but I cannot share files within a folder with different people, I have to enable permissions at the folder level.

    Office Web Apps are great if you already use Office on the desktop, but purely comparing apples and apples (web apps vs web apps), Office Web Apps are two generations behind.

  5. Kassie Kasselman says:

    USC Trojan clearly does not know how it feels to be without web access through no fault of your own, or he would keep quiet!  Reminds me of the error message that reads something like Sorry, we cannot connect to the web right now, please visit (and a link to a website is provided) for detailed information!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. USC Trojan says:


    I understand what you are saying – comparing "productivity applications" is the theme here and in that I totally believe Office on the desktop beats the pants off Google Apps.

    But you have to bear in mind that Microsoft's competition is trying to change the game. Google wants productivity to be software-free. As a very small business or as a student or an individual, why should I bother buying Office? I have free apps in the browser. That's what Microsoft should be concerned about.

    Yes, they make most of their money from enterprises, but remember, you skate where the puck is going to be, not where it is.

    Office Web Apps complement Office on the desktop very well, but just by themselves, they are really no competition to Google Apps. You also cannot dismiss the webification of productivity apps as something that has been pursued forever without gaining much traction. This is because a lot of infrastructure has changed – broadband is more pervasive, smartphones can do "full web" in addition to having native clients to web-based software, Google and the like have smart engineers who are iterating extremely quickly to make their apps more and more feature-rich.

    Microsoft needs to see this is a threat and try to iterate faster with their Office Web Apps, create iOS and Android apps and neutralize Google's USP. Quickly.

    I am rooting for them.

  7. Mkris says:

    Lemme say I work with MSFT technologies, not for MSFT or google or Apple.

    Whilst i understand and agree about google trailing MSFT office apps, Microsoft always seems to be trailing on OS level, to Apple OSX. One such example is what I read about windows 8's 'NEW' ability to open ISO files as a disk system. If my memory serves me right, this feature has been available since 2008 in OSX.

  8. Mkris says:

    Forgot to add

    Hence it looks like someone has to be behind someone, somewhere at some point it time !!!

  9. PedroPablo says:

    @Mkris It's called competition! Someone has to be leading the innovation, and it's really hard to innovate in everything you do.

    It's good that Google is chasing MSFT, I believe without the pressure generated by Google Apps, Office Web Apps probably wouldn't be available yet

    The famous cloud race would be more like a brisk walk in the productivity field at least.

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