Thin vs. Fat: Google’s plan to kill Microsoft Office

Is the Redmond juggernaut running out of steam, just as Google revs up its suite of thin-client apps?

The long battle of “thin versus fat” has commenced. From all appearances, Google is angling to end Microsoft’s hegemony by disrupting fat client computing on the desktop. The target: none other than Microsoft Office. The weapon of choice: browser-based, thin client applications.

In today’s Internet-centered world, the desktop is already becoming little more than a terminal for people on the go. Why should documents and key applications be locked into just one box? Why not move them to the Internet “cloud” so you can work from anywhere you happen to be, using whatever device you happen to have? And once you’ve sprung your documents from the PC prison, collaboration is just a click away. That’s the implicit pitch behind Google Apps.

Of course, we heard similar prognostications when the Web first appeared. Netscape and its ilk were going to change the desktop-bound world -- but they didn’t. However, this time around the driving force is not a bunch of startups with big dreams (even though some of them, such as Zoho, are also in the game) but a well-heeled corporate giant with cash to burn and talent to spare.

So is Office as we have known it for the last 20-odd years doomed? Those who’ve seen an endless parade of inflated possibilities can be forgiven for eyeing this latest paradigm shift from fat to thin clients as just another technology fad that, when it has passed, will leave Microsoft’s historic application pre-eminence unchallenged for many years to come. Depending on the time frame, there are strong arguments for and against that position.

Google’s plan starts with a stumble

Google is a tidal wave. The talent. The cash. The swagger. If anyone can make cloud computing a reality, and thus take a serious run at Microsoft, Google can.

At the heart of Google’s strategy is “the cloud”: It hosts your applications and data, providing the ubiquitous reach of cyberspace. No need for a complex desktop OS and application suite, nor the latest, power-sucking hardware to run it. It’s a cleaner, more responsible application-delivery model. You might even call it enlightened.

Unfortunately, the cloud is impractical today. Grid computing, software as a service, and the ability to manage application delivery and access at a global scale are all in their infancies. Like the Web in its early days, the thin client apps we see today are merely crude initial constructs trying to point the way forward.

Even with the cloud’s limitations, Google needs to do a better job playing up the inherent strengths of the hosted model -- for example, how users can easily share data without having to deploy any servers or infrastructure. Microsoft is already attacking this advantage via its Office Live Workspaces offering, which merely provides a password-protected SharePoint workspace for sharing documents via the Web. When it launches Workspaces as a beta release on December 10, Microsoft could even usurp its competitor’s position as the cloud-computing trendsetter. (Of course, despite the name, Office Live doesn’t offer Office functionality, so there are only so many stops Microsoft can pull right now.)

Google may ultimately find itself competing against a more functional hybrid product model that lets customers leverage the advantages of the cloud from the comfort of their familiar Windows-plus-Office environment. (That’s where Office Live seems to be heading: an adjunct to the traditional desktop-bound Office.) Ironically, the major interface redo of Windows Vista and Office 2007, plus IT grumbles about Office 2007’s instability, give Google an opening to redirect those IT investments away from the now-less-familiar Microsoft offering.

But Google faces a more pressing concern: Despite all the hype surrounding its Gears technology, which lets you save files locally, and Google Apps initiatives, the fact remains that none of this stuff works very well. Yes, there are exceptions -- Gmail being the oft-cited example -- but taken as a whole these offerings pale in comparison to the current state of desktop applications. When something as innocuous as accidentally hitting the F5 key can destroy your magnum opus, you know a technology is simply not ready for prime time. (Yes, this has been fixed, but it shows the immaturity in much of Google Apps.)

We all know that Microsoft also stumbles through its offerings, requiring several versions to deliver highly useful, largely stable apps. So it’s easy to imagine Google going through the same “long march” strategy and ultimately outpacing Microsoft. But it’s a shame that it doesn’t shorten the march by avoiding the stumbles to begin with.

First Google needs to shore up its current offerings. Offline access and persistence are two huge technical hurdles that Google has only recently begun to address with its Gears initiative. It needs to expand this functionality to the Documents, Spreadsheets, and Presentations apps -- and do so quickly. But the company’s recent Android project has stolen much the limelight away from the whole Google Apps initiative. That could take Google’s eye off the Office prize. Google executives need to refocus on the bigger quest, dethroning Microsoft, and not let too many major initiatives get in each other’s way. Google also needs to avoid getting too caught up in myriad side projects that may have a limited return on investment.

Google can’t do all this alone. The company can hire as much über-talent as it wants, but that won’t fix the fundamental issue that the Web is not a monolith that one company can control. You win by being part of a great team that together delivers the best results and has financial interests in seeing the team succeed. This is where Google’s paucity of ISVs is a real problem. It takes more than vision to change the world. It takes incentive, and for Google that means growing a real developer channel, one that can translate all of the cool Google technology into innovative, commercial applications that address real customer requirements.

If and when Google can bring such an ecosystem to life, it might actually have a chance at dethroning the Office king.

Why Microsoft is hard to beat

Embrace and extend. For better or worse, this has been Microsoft's modus operandi for more than a decade. Company strategists identify an emerging standard, publicly pledge support for it, then flood the marketplace with all sorts of proprietary extensions to “improve” the standard.

In some cases, it actually works out for the better. Key hardware technologies, such as the ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface), owe their existence to Microsoft's push to improve the Windows platform’s compatibility and stability. In many other cases, however, the company's embrace–and-extend moves have had disastrous consequences. The browser wars of the late 1990s were the direct result of Microsoft's attempts to squash Netscape by forcing developers to choose between incompatible HTML tag and plug-in standards.

The question now is: Can Microsoft continue to embrace and extend its way through a Web-centric world in which the traditional, fat client PC model of stand-alone applications and locally stored data seems almost anachronistic?

If you were to ask that same question while shaking your Magic 8 ball, I'm guessing the answer would be “Outlook Good.” Despite its legion mistakes, Microsoft still commands what is by far the most extensive software/hardware ecosystem in existence. From application servers to Zip file utilities, Microsoft's platforms are the primary targets for developers of all stripes. Many a commercial software development empire has risen on the tide that is Windows.

Case in point: Microsoft Office. Most people think of the big three -- Word, Excel, and PowerPoint -- as merely an integrated suite of stand-alone applications, albeit a wildly popular one. Take a closer look, however, and you see that Office is much, much more. Thanks to the inclusion of some robust integration APIs (Visual Basic for Applications, OLE automation, and various add-in interfaces), Office is a commercial development target in its own right. In fact, one of the easiest ways to break into the Windows development marketplace is by targeting Microsoft Office. Make it do something new or better and the world will beat a path to your door.

Of course, the Office “habitat” is just one part of the larger Windows ecosystem. SQL Server, Dynamics, Outlook, IIS (Internet Information Services) each generates its own gravitational field that helps capture the hearts and minds of commercial developers. And whether it’s IIS with SOAP and WSDL or SQL Server with metadata, each implements the embrace-and-extend philosophy in a way that strengthens each piece of the ecosystem, including Office.

One force that could disrupt this self-reinforcing ecosystem strategy is the Web. The combination of browser-based thin clients and ubiquitous connectivity are conspiring to usurp some of Microsoft's control over the industry. But Microsoft, as much as it appears to be a lumbering monster, has seen this threat and is using its tried-and-true strategy of embrace and extend here, too. Like the plodding creatures of horror flicks, it may in fact catch the seemingly faster victim.

First, the embrace: Microsoft is aggressively responding to inroads made by the likes of Google and startup Zoho, launching some Office Live thin client services for small businesses, such as a contact manager and Web site designer, in addition to its consumer-oriented Windows Live offerings, such as photo-sharing and blogging tools.

Now the extend: True to form, Microsoft is extending these Office Live and Windows Live services by tying each new offering into its traditional desktop OS and application platforms. Windows Live Mail, Office Live Workspaces, and Windows Live Writer are all targeted at the rapidly expanding market for applications that live within the cloud. All are very much Windows-specific, with hybrid architectures that tightly integrate Web and desktop in a decidedly Microsoft fashion.

Still, Office Live is at best just a placeholder for an even more ambitious endgame. Through application virtualization (SoftGrid, et al.), Microsoft could very well leverage the very same forces of ubiquitous connectivity that are enabling thin client Web apps to deliver the “real” versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and the rest in their full, feature-rich, fat client glory through a massive, distributed network of streaming servers.

The value proposition of Microsoft’s potential approach is very tempting: Why settle for some low- or no-cost AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) application when you can get Microsoft's latest and greatest delivered right to your desktop for the same money (or for a few dollars more, depending on how aggressive Microsoft decides to be with its subscriptions push)? That would be a steep challenge for Google to meet.

Gauging Google’s chances

Even if Microsoft never delivers Office as thin client services à la Google Apps, Google is not home-free. It still needs to professionalize its applications quickly and jumpstart its own thin client ecosystem and partnerships. And those necessary efforts notwithstanding, Google’s success or failure may ultimately have more to do with Microsoft’s own gaffes and fumbles.

One Microsoft error is clear: the unenthusiastic reception for Vista and Office 2007. Both make IT work harder, suffer from design and stability drawbacks, and deliver less than originally promised. Only by virtue of a gargantuan installed base can Microsoft weather that grudging transition.

A more critical Microsoft mistake, perhaps, is the company’s paranoid campaign to stamp out piracy. Microsoft has made the prospect of living with Windows increasingly difficult to stomach. Case in point: WGA (Windows Genuine Advantage). With WGA, Microsoft has made the process of activating and maintaining the activated status of its products so cumbersome and error-prone that it’s becoming an obstacle to future adoption. Horror stories abound of users whose systems became disabled because WGA was triggered erroneously, resulting in reduced functionality or, as in my own case, a complete lockout from my desktop.

Another potential chink in the Windows armor involves virtualization. Microsoft could leverage its SoftGrid application virtualization and streaming technology to deliver fully functional versions of its most popular applications via a monthly or quarterly subscription model. If it actually delivers on this approach, Microsoft would validate the cloud approach to application delivery, helping make the case for thin client competitors such as Google. Then Microsoft has to win by being better and/or cheaper than Google. Its history argues against either outcome, at least at first.

If Microsoft comes out with an aggressive fee schedule for a streamed version of Office, the game could be over for Google. But if Microsoft gets greedy and decides to protect its existing channels by withholding any clear financial incentive to subscribe, customers will likely balk at the “virtual Office” solution and start to actively consider alternatives such as Google Apps.

Without question, Google can put a serious dent in Microsoft’s dominance and in the traditional fat client computing model if it shores up its current offerings, if it builds an effective, incentive-driven ISV community, if Microsoft continues to foist more draconian restrictions and hurdles to product activation, and if Redmond fails to aggressively push its upcoming subscription offering in terms of functionality and price.

That’s a lot of ifs, and only two are within Google’s control. IT shops may want to hedge their bets by at least testing the Office Live waters along with Google Gears. As much as pundits get excited about revolutionary, “New Economy”-style change, the world of IT and users is more pragmatic and cautious. After all, not everyone wants a revolution. Some of us just want to feel like we’re part of one while we watch it all unfold from the comfort of our own familiar PCs.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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