Google plugs along in apps market

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Two years ago, when Google took its first steps in the office productivity market, the move generated much buzz, mostly because it was seen as another competitive clash with Microsoft.

Adding to the novelty, Google opted for a software-as-a-service strategy, hosting the applications on its servers and offering them via Web browsers. Google described this model as the future and portrayed as old-school the Microsoft Office architecture, in which software lives on PC hard drives.

For Google, it all started in March 2006, when it acquired Upstartle and its Writely Web-hosted word processor, a move followed months later with the launch of the spreadsheet application and the subsequent combination of the two into the free Docs suite. Docs later gained a presentations application a la PowerPoint and became part of the broader collaboration and communication suite Google Apps.

Now, the buzz has quieted down and Google, like any vendor, is immersed in improving its applications and remaining competitive. Microsoft is finally Web-enabling its Office suite via Office Live Workspace, while other strong competitors in the hosted productivity market, like Zoho, are credible rivals.

This week, as Google announced enhancements to its spreadsheet program, IDG News Service chatted with Jonathan Rochelle, senior product manager for Google Docs, about various challenges, like Microsoft’s threat in the hosted space and the difficulty of supporting millions of users.

Here is an edited version of the conversation:

IDGNS: Google Docs’ users seem very interested in being able to work with the applications when they aren’t online. What’s the status for adding offline capabilities to Google Docs?

Rochelle: We’ve definitely heard that. It’s a very popular request. We’re pursuing it. It’s not done, but we’re working on it.

IDGNS: Are you still planning to base the offline capabilities on the Google Gears technology?

Rochelle: Yes, so far that’s the foundation, to try to make it consistent with the other products and with how they operate.

IDGNS: Docs users often must export documents to Microsoft Office for more advanced tasks, like formatting and layouts. Is your goal to build up Docs’ feature set so that users don’t need to toggle between it and Office?

Rochelle: I’ve heard that at times. I can relate to that in some cases. I’ve been using Office and other offline products for many years and sometimes it takes a while to understand how or whether you can do [certain things] with other apps. So to the extent that [not having a popular feature] is painful for users, yes, we’re going to pursue easing that pain so they can do other things. To the extent that it’s very a specific and niche [function], like something some users may need for extensive styling or things that are a bit more specific, we probably wouldn’t do it just for the sake of [matching Office feature by feature]. But the goal is definitely to ease the user experience and make it so it’s very simple for users to get what they want.

IDGNS: Many say Google Docs and Apps have benefited from Microsoft’s slowness in Web-enabling Office. Recently, Microsoft has been taking concrete steps in this direction. Does this concern you?

Rochelle: No, right now we’re only concerned with things that are out there today. I can’t spend the time to say “what if.” It’s a different product set still [between Docs and Office]. Even if there are some overlaps in functions, we see ours as a sharing and collaborative app.

Yes, people are saying Microsoft has been slow to respond but all that does is give credibility to the approach we’re taking. What people are saying [about Docs] is that it’s a great product and that a company like Microsoft should probably do something like it. To me, that’s a fantastic statement — that what we’re doing is credible.

I don’t worry about what Microsoft might do. I look at their [Office] announcements and say “Is there something there I should understand? Has it become a competitor or not?” But otherwise it’s not something we focus on.

IDGNS: Docs users often complain that Google doesn’t offer enough technical support, that when they have a problem or a question, their only recourse is to post a message on the Docs discussion forum and hope for an answer. How are you dealing with this?

Rochelle: Yeah, that’s a huge challenge. What we’re doing to address that doesn’t change the fact that we’re always going to have this huge imbalance between numbers of users and support [staffers]. But we try to constantly improve the content of our Help [pages] and the user-to-user interaction.

A lot of what we see happening is that we set up these user-to-user groups which almost serve each other. We’re involved in them as well, but it helps our scale. And regarding our Help content, we’re constantly reviewing [those stats] to see where people are failing in searching and trying to find answers. Within those, we try to address the content to make it something you can find more easily, to make it more targeted to what they’re looking for. We’re also starting to provide more context-sensitive help: things that are within the app that help you either find the feature or understand how to use it.

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