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Google Docs does not make Office better

Google Docs does not make Office better

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Hi, I’m Alex Payne and I’m a Director in our Online Product Management team.  A couple of news articles and blogs landed today where Google is trying to make the case that existing Office customers (and there are over 500 Million of them worldwide) should hold off on upgrading to Office 2010 and instead utilize Google Docs as a complement to older versions of Office.  Their argument goes like this: Keep Office (an older version) and use Google Docs *with* it and this combination will be more valuable than Office 2010 alone.  Here is an actual quote from Dave Girouard (President of the Enterprise division at Google - the group that makes Google Apps):

"Most people find, and they maybe perhaps don't expect it at first, that Google Docs works quite well with Office and in fact it makes Office better,"

I’m also including a few links (link1, link2, link3) to some of these articles so you can get the gist.

Google is of course doing this now as the business launch of Office 2010 happens tomorrow (Wednesday May 12, 2010).  I’m not going to focus on the launch in this blog as there already has been a ton of great news about Office 2010, SharePoint 2010, Exchange 2010, etc.  What I want to do is spend a little time focusing on Google’s argument.  I used to think it was something that Google implied.  Given the quotes and articles today, I now see that Google is being explicit in their claim.  They are claiming that an organization can use both seamlessly.

This just isn’t the case.  Let me explain:  As I mentioned above Office has over 500 Million users around the world and has been serving customers’ productivity needs for over 25 years.  Just for a moment think about how many files created by a version of Office exist.  I like Math (thanks Mom!), but the size of the large numbers that pop in my head right now are pretty amazing.  Now, what if I told you that every time you opened one of these documents in Office it converted this document to a different file format for viewing/editing and that this new converted document actually was missing some of its components (which were there before the conversion).  Some of these components might be pretty important.  Charts, styles, watermarks, fonts, tracked changes, SmartArt, etc. (can be a pretty long list) might be gone or manipulated in a way resulting in something that doesn’t look like it did before conversion.   Well, the good news is that Office doesn’t do this.  But, this is exactly what loading an Office document to Google Docs does.  In Google’s implied state where “Office is better” because Google Docs is around, I would assume that when these documents are again opened in Office that they will still have all the components I put in the original file (you can export from Google Apps in many file formats including those supported by Office).  Well, if you made this assumption you would be wrong.  When that file was originally converted from Office to Google Docs – you lost those components.  They aren’t coming back just because you are in Office again (you are of course free to go add them back in now…). 

Let me embed a video to explain this visually:


The point of this discussion is to explain why the argument that “Google Docs will make Office” better is simply not true.  In fact, an organization that figures out all these issues after the fact could incur quite a bit of “cost” to learn this painfully.  Now, I did say that I would not go deep on the Office 2010 launch news above – but I do want to call out just a few things as they are important to this topic.  The first point is that this issue of “file fidelity” is actually something we focused very hard on while building our Office web apps.  In fact, the scenario I described for Google Docs above is what we don’t do.  We strive for high fidelity between the PC, phone and the browser and we are very excited about the new collaboration capabilities this will enable.  In fact, if you have a document that was created in Office and you upload it to our Office web apps (Excel, Word, PowerPoint and OneNote) the document will look almost identical when you view it in the browser (IE, Firefox and Safari) *and* we maintain the components in the doc even if you don’t see them in the web.  This means that a document that shows up back in the rich client Office (after starting there, going to the web and back) will look just like it did when you started (with full functionality).  We call this “round-tripping” and we think it’s important.  Google Docs simply doesn’t do this when you use it with Office.  The quote above should simply read: “Office with the Office web apps makes Office better.”

There are a couple of other clarifying points that are worth noting:

·         In the articles, Google keeps stating that you need Office rich client to get our Office web apps.  This isn’t the case.  In fact, 400M Windows Live users will be able to access the Office web apps through Windows Live SkyDrive – no rich client required.  (Again, you’ll get a great experience if you do have the rich client – but saying you must have it just isn’t true)

·         Google also has called out “complexity” in how we will make the Office web apps available.  Not sure I get this either.  Consumers will get them through Windows Live.  Consumers and organizations have different needs (organizations often require more IT control). Organizations have a couple ways to get them.  If you want them online – great! We will make them available through Microsoft Online.  If you’d rather run them in your data center – that is also great!  You can run them yourselves on a locally installed SharePoint instance.  Regardless, “High Fidelity” will be there in whichever mode you choose.

·         I also read it claimed that SharePoint had no offline solution.  Let me introduce Microsoft SharePoint Workspace 2010 (the next version of Microsoft Office Groove).  In hindsight, I’m glad we didn’t choose Google Gears for taking SharePoint offline as it looks like that technology is going away.


But now I’m starting to talk about all the great stuff in the 2010 wave and I already said I wouldn’t do that…

(…and thanks to Jake Zborowski for the quick video.  www.twitter.com/jakezbo)


Alex Payne





Alex here again.  Great comments.  First, thanks to everyone who has read the blog and taken the time to comment and share your thoughts.  This is exactly the type of conversation we hoped to start about the claims Google has made about ‘seamless’ experience or Google Docs making Office ‘better’.   To that point, let me take a moment to respond to some of the comments.

@Sumanth – Actually, you can upload documents that are built in older versions of Office (.xls, .ppt, .doc).  You can view and edit them in the Office Web Apps as well.  If you choose to export back, they will be in OOXML file formats.  Older versions of Office (XP, 2003) can read (and edit, etc.) these files via the Office compatibility pack I recommend you read the Microsoft Document InterOp site or Doug Mahugh’s blog post on document interop which has a great overview of the technical challenges facing Binary to XML Based (ODF and OOXML) file conversion.

@Chris – With respect to ‘proprietary’ we have made the Binary file types (.doc, .xls, etc.) available to the world on a royalty-free basis under Microsoft’s Open Specification Promise (OSP).  Office Open XML(OOXML) is both an ECMA and ISO approved format and therefore also open for adoption royalty-free.  The document that we used in the video is an OOXML file format.   In my tests (you can test for yourself) similar results happen when Google Docs converts ODF native files.  This is despite Google being a sponsor on the ODF Alliance.  The point is that Google’s architecture and file storage still is converting documents into their format (assuming HTML) and as a result content loss occurs. These appear to be Google related issues so I will defer to them to answer why they do this...   

@ Michael Leggett – Office Web Apps are pure browser based and do NOT require Silverlight or any ActiveX controls or an upgrade to a brand new browser.  More detail here.  Silverlight does improve scaling, performance and image rendering if it’s there but it is optional and NOT required.   Thanks for including links to Google Docs’ documents for people to look at, however I am not sure it helps answer the claims made by Google (I think you work there which is great) that “it’s seamless”. 

As for web apps access, I recommend you try this link.  At the bottom of this page you will see a link to get access to them through SkyDrive – or organizations/businesses can *also* see a link for where they can download them if they want to run them locally (on-premises).  Again, we are different than Google here in that we let you do either.  If you’d rather run them through Facebook, go to http://docs.com and sign up (need your Facebook ID).

A couple of other links all might find interesting:  

The Microsoft Office Web Apps Engineering blog

The Microsoft Office 2010 Engineering blog

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