Handicapping Microsoft And Google's Online Collision

Last Updated Sep 29, 2009 3:34 PM EDT

Now that Microsoft has given its partners a limited preview of its Office applications suite, the race to dominate the market for online productivity tools has officially begun.

On the face of it, despite its tardy entry to this race Microsoft has an enormous head start because of its base of users of the ubiquitous Office suite, which includes Word, Excel PowerPoint and a few other applications. (Microsoft also likes to claim that it's an old hand at software-as-a-service (SaaS) because it's been delivering Hotmail, Outlook Web Access (OWA) and several other products via the Web for years, but that's a red herring; Microsoft has little experience with the actual business of delivering and charging for SaaS applications, and most of the experience it has is with consumers rather than enterprise customers.)

Google, on the other hand, really is an old hand at SaaS, but has had limited traction with its Google Apps and corporate gmail accounts, and recent outages have damaged its credibility. GE backed out of using Google's online applications after a lengthy trial, mainly because of security and compliance issues that, while not intractable, seemed too complicated to be worth the effort.

But where Google does have an advantage is its inherent philosophy, which embraces open standards like HTML5 and other Web standards, which allow end users to own their intellectual property in a way that Microsoft applications don't. Oliver Marks at sister-site ZDNet touched on this briefly in a recent post, but gave the principle issue short shrift, writing:

Google [is] brilliantly exploiting (and also a contributor to be fair) the efforts of the global open standards community, while Microsoft [is] far less closed and proprietary than in their past.
The fact is that Google is doing more than "brilliantly exploiting" the open standards community; the very principles of that community means that someone can create documents using Google applications and then change to another application vendor down the line without losing their work or, more importantly, embedded processes like workflow. Microsoft, on the other hand, still does use proprietary software which means end users are stuck with Microsoft forever.

As Gary Edwards, former executive director of the Open Document Foundation wrote in an email:

The defining feature sets of Microsoft applications are not that they are commensurate or competitive with alternative applications and services; it's that they maintain control and ownership of end user content... Google seems to be the only ones who understand that the great Open Web point of assembly is going to involve much more than unified communications and a gaggle of rip and replace apps. The key here is the concept of unified productivity; where communications, collaboration and content converge.
The question is whether enterprises will move to Google (or some other standards- and Web-based vendor) in time, or whether they will get trapped in the fly-paper of Microsoft code, from which they will be hard pressed to detach their documents. This was the problem Massachusetts faced when the state wanted to abandon Microsoft in favor of standards-based applications; their legacy documents were filled with Microsoft code they couldn't translate cleanly into another format.

When the race is finished, that may turn out to be Microsoft's greatest strength. While the rest of the world embraces openness and cooperation, Microsoft remains proprietary and closed like a fist.

  • Michael Hickins

    Michael Hickins has written about technology and business for BNET, InformationWeek, InternetNews.com, eWEEK -- where he was executive editor from 2007-2008 -- The Curator, Pseudo.com, Multex Investor, Reuters, and Conde Nast's WWD.com. Hickins is the author of The Actual Adventures of Michael Missing, a collection of short stories published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1991. He also published Blomqvist, a picaresque novel set in 11th century Europe, in 2006. Hickins remains passionately interested in the intersections of business, technology, politics and culture, and endures a life-long obsession with baseball. He is married with two children and lives in Manhattan.