Google launches preemptive strike at Office 365

Google's new Cloud Connect collaboration add-in for Microsoft Office strikes at the heart of the Office 365 juggernaut

How much is good enough? That question kept resonating through my Office 365-drenched brain as I started using the final version of Google's new Office add-in, dubbed Google Cloud Connect for Microsoft Office (moniker gets high points for steak, not much for sizzle).

The product is a gussied-up version of DocVerse, a collaboration program Google bought in February 2010, and it doesn't bring anything new to the online collaboration ball game. But it's fast, easy, free to an extent -- more about that shortly -- and it offers a few unique capabilities you may find inviting. (InfoWorld's Doug Dineley took the beta version of Cloud Connect through its paces to see if it delivers.)

Here's how it works. After you download and install Cloud Connect and restart Word, Excel, or PowerPoint, you're prompted to enter your Google credentials. Google asks for permission to allow Cloud Connect (Pavilion) access to your account. You can choose to save your documents to the Google Cloud automatically (every time you save in the application), or you can make the cloud sync manual (when you specifically click on the Sync button).

When the Office app comes up for air, it sprouts a new ribbon (yech). Although it takes up substantial screen real estate, it allows you to change the sync state between automatic and manual, and it holds the requisite Sync button. When you save a document in automatic mode or click the Sync button, a copy of the doc goes to your Google Docs account. As soon as the doc appears in Google Docs it's assigned an URL, which you can email to other people and thus invite collaboration.

Collaborators can work on multiple parts of a single document simultaneously. Changes are merged when the document is saved or synced, and the saver gets to choose how to handle editing collisions (a very simple choice between take my changes or take the other changes, with conflicting modifications dropped). If you go offline, the sync takes places as soon as you reconnect to the Internet. As usual, Google Docs keeps earlier versions of documents, so rolling back is easy.

The Cloud Connect plug-in is free. It works with Office 2003, 2007, and 2010 (but not Office for Mac, because Microsoft hasn't provided the APIs to the Mac version of Office needed for plug-ins to work). Google Docs is free. But if you want to sign up for the Connect service -- which lets your company stick Google Docs on your own servers, so synced copies aren't flying around the Web -- you need to get Google Apps for Business, which costs $50 per seat per year. Google Apps for Business adds all sorts of extra capabilities.

Many Google Cloud features are available already. Right now you can get document collaboration from Microsoft with Office 2010, using SharePoint 2010, or the free SharePoint Foundation 2010. But you can't get collaboration from Office 2003 or Office 2007 apps. And you have to run SharePoint (or rent it through BPOS or some other provider) on your own.

You can get syncing of any kind of file with the free DropBox, but you won't get collaboration or the in-application integration with Office.

Google Cloud has one more trick up its sleeve: Files you put in your Google Docs account are immediately available inside other Google Apps. If you want to edit a document in both Word and Google Docs, it's much simpler using Cloud Connect.

Microsoft is building Office 365 as the Mercedes-Benz of the cloud office application business, adding easier cloud capabilities to the core heavy-hitter Office base. Meanwhile, Google is taking its lightweight (in many senses of the term) applications and fusing cloud savvy into the mix, offering free or nearly-free but less-capable alternatives, though it remains to be seen whether David can knock out Goliath.

This story, "Google launches preemptive strike at Office 365," 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 business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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