Google's enterprise division is hosting several hundred CIOs on Monday at its headquarters, where it will unveil enhancements to its Docs office suite, including a revamped code base.
Docs, which Google has in the past acknowledged doesn't match the sophistication or the features of Microsoft Office, is now architected in a way that will allow for faster and significant improvements, according to a Google official.
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"We have built a brand-new technology foundation that lets us innovate more quickly," said Anil Sabharwal, a Google Enterprise product manager.
Docs, a free, Web-hosted office productivity suite, is available as a standalone product and also as part of the broader Google Apps collaboration and communications suite.
While Google has all along touted the collaboration capabilities that its software-as-a-service model gives Docs, the office suite has lacked enough features to prevent organizations from using it as a complete replacement for Microsoft Office.
In particular, users have complained about difficulty formatting word processing documents, forcing them to export Docs files to Microsoft Office for things like pagination and setting margins.
So far, the strongest feature in Apps has been its Gmail component, which has proven a viable alternative to messaging platforms like Microsoft Exchange and IBM's Lotus Notes.
Now, Google intends to give Docs a big boost, so that it becomes a stronger competitor to Microsoft Office, not just a Web-hosted complement to it.
Google is announcing improvements in the formatting area for its Docs word processing application, including what it calls better "fidelity" when importing and exporting documents to and from Microsoft Office, improved margins and tab stops, better image layout, and an enhanced in-document comments system.
The word-processing document editor features what Google calls real-time editing collaboration, meaning people can see others making changes "character by character." Also new is a chat window for collaborators to communicate via instant messaging.
The spreadsheet application now has a formula bar for editing cells, and auto-complete and drag-and-drop capabilities. In addition, the drawing editor now lets users collaborate in real time.
The new word processing, spreadsheet, and drawing editors allow up to 50 collaborators to simultaneously edit. Docs in general will now be faster thanks to its new infrastructure.
A downside, which Google promises will be temporary, is the disabling of the Gears offline technology in Docs as of May 3. Google expects to bring back the ability to work when disconnected from the Internet soon, taking advantage of HTML 5. Gmail and Calendar will continue to use Gears.
The Docs improvements sound interesting to Kristi Graning, senior vice president of IT and e-business at global real estate company RE/MAX International.
"I want to get my hands on Google Docs and try it out myself," said Graning, who attended Google's Atmosphere event for IT executives on Monday.
RE/MAX International doesn't use Google Apps. The company has relied for years on Microsoft Exchange, Outlook and Office. But Graning is intrigued by cloud-based applications as a possible alternative, not only to cut costs but also to provide tools that give its corporate employees and real estate agents an edge over the competition.