Is Google Trying to Out-Microsoft Microsoft?

Microsoft has the better Office productivity product and the better platform. But with Google's new migration tool and its low, low pricing, the whole office suite space could become really interesting for everybody.
In the early 1990s, WordPerfect dominated the word processor scene, and Microsoft Word was a scrappy underdog. It's hard to believe now, but it's true.

As Word rose in popularity, many WordPerfect users resisted. They had spent so much time learning the WordPerfect-specific keystrokes, called function keys. So what did Microsoft do? They enabled a mode whereby WordPerfect keystrokes would execute the same commands in Word that they did in WordPerfect.

In addition, Microsoft gave discounts on Windows to OEMs who included Word on new PCs. The result was (and maybe still is) that most new PCs came with Word pre-installed, and the additional cost was pretty low.

Besides, WordPerfect was really just a relic of the DOS era, and Word was a creature of the new world of graphical computing. And the rest, including WordPerfect as a dominant application, is history.

Microsoft's tactics proved fatal to WordPerfect's preeminence. This was largely lost to history, but its lesson was not lost on Google. It appears that history is repeating itself. This time, Microsoft is the target.

Some believe we are moving from an era of bloated desktop office applications like Microsoft Office into a new world of online, cloud-based office apps -- and that this transition is comparable to the move from DOS to Windows.

That comparison can only be stretched so far, however. While moving to graphical computing was inevitable, and command-line interfaces a clear dead-end, it remains to be seen if the transition to cloud computing will be fully realized.

Google wants to hurry up and convert Office users before Microsoft's own Office Web Apps takes hold. Google unveiled this week a tool called Google Apps Migration for Microsoft Exchange to automate the migration of Microsoft Exchange-based contacts, e-mail and calendar data into Google Apps.

The tool is free for those who have paid for the Premier or Education editions of Apps. The tool doesn't migrate Outlook Tasks or Journal entries.

Google has another tool designed to do the same thing for migrating from IBM's Lotus Notes/Domino.

Like Microsoft in the 90s, Google has identified one significant point of resistance to abandoning a competitor, and is taking steps to remove that source of non-movement. It remains to be seen how trouble-free, secure and easy Google Apps Migration for Microsoft Exchange will be.

And, like Microsoft in the 90's, Google has eliminated cost as a serious limitation. Google's offering is either free or so cheap as to be essentially free.

Google Apps Standard Edition is the free version. It includes Gmail, Calendar, Docs and Sites (for creating Web sites). A "Premier Edition" costs $50 per year, and includes additional features and actual tech support. It's designed not for individuals, but small businesses, and is capped at 50 user accounts.

Unfortunately for Google, the biggest barrier to the abandonment of desktop and client-server applications has yet to be tackled, which is the appeal and feasibility of cloud-based applications. I don't know exact numbers, but a great many people have started Google Docs accounts, tried it, then have fallen back on using Microsoft office.

(Has this happened to you? If so, please tell your story in the comments area below.)

Using Google Docs or other online apps thus far has proved an inferior experience compared with Microsoft Office apps.

Google now boasts 25 million users. But are those users, or are they people who tried but wandered away? Is Google counting sign-ups that have been abandoned? Individual users? Tire kickers?

Are they assuming every account with a maximum of 50 users is the equivalent of 50 users? I really don't know who is being counted.

But I do believe I understand the strategy of focusing on Apps (connected, hosted suites for companies) rather than Docs (apps for individuals). Because individuals almost always prefer Microsoft Office over Google Docs or Apps. Especially on the company's dime. But when companies are faced with shelling out thousands of dollars for office applications, Google Apps looks pretty good.

In fact, Microsoft could deal Google Apps a fatal blow by simply lowering the price of Office. If Microsoft sold a discount bundle of Word, Excel and Outlook for, say, $50 or so, forget it. Game over. Nobody would even contemplate online apps. Microsoft could go ahead and charge a premium for PowerPoint and all the rest, one at a time.

Of course, it's easy for me to price Microsoft's cash cow any way I choose. But the fact remains that Microsoft could find itself losing massive global sales, especially in emerging markets, to Google's Microsoftian tactics for using ease-of-migration, low price and magic "cloud" pixie dust.

As far as I'm concerned, Microsoft has the better product and the better platform. But with Google's new migration tool and its low, low pricing, the whole office suite space could become really interesting for everybody.




Tags: Microsoft, Google Apps, Google Docs, migration, Microsoft Word


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