Google gives up on mobile Google Docs, buys Quickoffice to go native

The move underscores the difficulty of creating 'real' HTML apps and may hinder businesses' mobile ambitions

In December 2010, when Google unveiled its grand Chrome OS plan for Chromebook laptops that did everything on the Web -- no local apps or even storage -- a big question was how could that work in the real world where connectivity was often unavailable or the cost of a patchwork of connection plans quickly became too high to remain always connected. Google said it would deliver offline-capable Google Docs in March 2011, but it never did. It still hasn't. And Chrome OS is essentially a failed product today.

At the same time, Google Docs -- which is quite useful in that multiple people can work on different parts of a spreadsheet (such as a table) or calendar, and it serves essentially as a user-friendly content database -- worked horribly on mobile browsers like iOS's Safari and Android's Browser. Google came out with a mobile-optimized Google Docs website, but it still worked poorly.

All this is why Google revealed today that it has bought Quickoffice, a small company whose Quickoffice Pro productivity suite is the only serious business editing tool for Android and the only serious competitor to Apple's iWork on iOS -- it even beats iWork in several key functions. In other words, Google has thrown in the towel on making a real, rich app work via HTML only, at least in the mobile context. (Dataviz's once-leading Documents to Go has all but disappeared with no significant updates since BlackBerry maker Research in Motion bought its key assets 18 months ago.)

If any company could have -- and should have -- made mobile Web apps work like native local apps, it is Google. For Google to have given up means that the chances for Microsoft to make its Office 365 suite work on mobile are remote at best; Office 365 too is essentially unusable on mobile devices.

UPDATE: I should point out that Google called me after this post was published to strongly object to the characterization that it has given up on HTML for such apps, and a spokeswoman said in fact Google is very strongly committed. She cited the update to Chrome OS last week that adds Quickoffice-derived technology to the Google Docs viewer and says that offline editing is working in beta at Google. Perhaps, but I've heard similar commitments before and haven't yet seen it translate on the ground. Enough promises and beta -- it's time deliver it for real. If the Quickoffice acquisition can help make that happen, great! And six months after this story originally ran, Google formally shipped a version of Quickoffice that acts as the front end to Google Apps on iOS and Android devices; that Quickoffice front-end client app is free to Google Apps susbscribers.

Other commentators have interpreted the Quickoffice acquisition as a way to compete better with Microsoft Office, perhaps with a Metro version for Windows 8 to make Google Docs seem less Webby and more appy. Perhaps, but Quickoffice has no history on any Microsoft or desktop platform.

What I see as the limits of HTML for "real" apps is not the only implication of Google's purchase of Quickoffice. The buyout could lead to a real dilemma for businesses that use iPhones and iPads, which have become the new corporate standards. Apple and Google are, to put it mildly, at war, and it's easy to imagine that Apple will find some way to punish Google by withholding approval for future versions of Quickoffice, especially the badly designed Quickoffice Connect app that tried to deliver a cross-platform version of iCloud. (UPDATE: Quickoffice has since announced that it will shut down Connect and move users' data to Google Drive as of July 15.) Likewise, it's easy to imagine that Google will pull Quickoffice from iOS or deliver an inferior version (as it does for most of its iOS apps) to spite Apple and steer users to Android.

In recent months, Quickoffice has partnered with several major mobile management vendors, incorporating their security APIs so that IT can manage the contents within Quickoffice, such as to prevent use in other apps or to wipe the data from users' devices if they leave the company. That's positioned Quickoffice to be the corporate mobile office-suite standard on the two mobile OSes that matter today (iOS and Android); given how poor Microsoft Office for Windows Phone 7 is, you could easily imagine Quickoffice delivering a version for that platform should it finally gain user adoption.

Like Apple and Microsoft, Google is trying to create a proprietary ecosystem, so it favors its Chrome browser, Google+ social network service, and Android mobile OS, and it is working with other ecosystems only to the extent it has to. If that strategy is applied to Quickoffice, any enterprise hopes of there being a standard mobile office tool that works across the major platforms and offers IT-friendly capabilities.

This story, "Google gives up on mobile Google Docs, buys Quickoffice to go native," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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