The future of Google Apps: social features, high performance spreadsheets, working offline

Yesterday I spoke to Google’s Global Product Management Director for Google Enterprise (whew!) Matthew Glotzbach, at a press briefing for Google Apps which included the announcement of Google Docs Discussions, as covered here.

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One of the issues discussed in the briefing was Cloud Connect, which I reported on here. Cloud Connect automatically copies and synchronises Microsoft Office documents with Google’s cloud storage. There are some performance and usability issues, but the biggest problem is that you cannot edit the documents in the browser; or rather, if you do, Google makes a second copy leading to versioning issues.

Google says this is a file format issue. The online Google Docs applications cannot edit documents in Microsoft Office formats – “the document models are completely different” says Glotzbach – though it can import and export those formats. Could Google develop the ability to edit Office documents online? “It is a technical challenge, something we haven’t built yet,” he added.

It is an interesting point. Microsoft’s Office Web Apps have flaws, but they do let you maintain the same document whether edited in the browser or in the Office desktop applications. It is an example of friction if you try to live partly in Microsoft Office, and partly in Google’s cloud. It may be better to stick with one or the other.

What about offline capability, something I hear a lot as counting against Google Docs. Google had a solution for this based on its Gears add-on, but then withdrew it.

We are actively working on offline. It is extremely important. Gears was a precursor. A lot of the ideas embedded in Gears have become part of HTML5.

says Glotzbach. I asked whether this will extend to the Chrome OS netbook operating system, and he said that it will:

Chrome, as the most modern browser based on HTML 5, has the capabilities built into its core. Chrome OS as a derivative of that has those offline capabilities baked into it, so it is a matter of having applications take advantage of that.

We also talked about the new discussions feature. I observed that it seems to be just one part of a bigger story. What about discussions spanning multiple documents? What about discussions without documents? Is there any way of doing that?

“Yes, email,” he said, chuckling. Clearly Google has taken to heart that email remains the de facto mechanism for most corporate collaboration. “We’ve also got Google groups. Obviously the manifestation of a group for many users is email, that’s how they interact with it, but there is also a destination site or page for that group.”

Might Google develop its own equivalent to Salesforce.com Chatter, for Twitter-like enterprise messaging?

The idea of eventually being able to pull in other streams, the idea of social media inside the enterprise Is a powerful idea. I think Chatter is a good example of that, and others such as Yammer. I think those ideas will likely find their way into businesses. It is not clear to me that social will be a destination within an Enterprise. Rather I see it as, features will emerge in various products that leverage those social capabilities. Discussions is influenced heavily by a lot of those social media ideas, and so you can see that evolving into more integrated social capabilities across the app suite.

What about Google spreadsheets, which seem great for simple tasks and collaboration, but suffer performance and scalability issues when used with large data collections that work fine in Excel?

There’s always work to do. We have today some limitations in terms of spreadsheet size. Those are things we are actively working on. With browser technologies I actually think we have an advantage over desktop applications. If I told you I had a spreadsheet that had 5 million columns and a billion rows, there’s no desktop spreadsheet in the world that can handle that kind of volume, but because we have in essence supercomputers on the back end processing that, what you display is just a window of that large data. So we’re using clever technologies like pre-fetching the rows and columns that are just off the edge of the page, similar to some of the technologies we use with Google Maps.

But it’s an example where we have some artificial limitations that we are working to remove. Imagine doing really sophisticated non-linear calculations in a spreadsheet. We’ve got a supercomputer on the back end that can do that for you in seconds.

2 thoughts on “The future of Google Apps: social features, high performance spreadsheets, working offline”

  1. Tim
    I don’t understand why Buzz (the next Google Wave?) is not included for business use in Google Apps. It is not successful in the consumer market but could really useful in a business context. Yammer/Chatter would have a serious contender there.

    –Philippe Creytens

  2. Another good interview Tim. The Google problem with MSOffice formats is an old one though. And i do think their JSON-OTXML approach to cracking the native format conundrum is going to pay off eventually.

    Maybe though they should take a look at what Florian Reuter is doing over at NOOXML.com, his Native Office Open XML test site? His browser based viewer for these native files is fantastic. It’s also mobile ready (iOS and Android).

    No doubt Florian’s next trick is going to be editing these native documents without breaking them. Meaning, browser editing of a native “in-process” MSOffice document, and being able to round-trip the document back into a local workgroup without breaking the business process or workflow.

    He’s already demonstrated real-time collaboration with MSOffice desktops, so i think the round-trip without breaking is within reach. World changing stuff given that Google is having such a hard time pulling off the native document trick. Go Florian.

    I also like the Wave discussion design. I hope Google enables a similar feature in Google Notebooks.

    The Google Cloud Connect is just okay. I appreciate the measures Google has taken to warn users of the dangers involved with on-line editing. But it’s still easy to break a native document. Especially problematic are template docs.

    I’ve also tested MS-Live. Surprisingly there are even more problems with the MSOffice 2010 – Live send-save-sync-share process. It’s very easy to end up with 10 versions of the same document, all with different names and sharing permissions. MS can’t seem to get the synchronization process right. Dropbox must be laughing their asses off.

    I also found the MS-Live process to be very frustrating. It seemed like every time i wanted to do something, Microsoft had 50 other hoops they wanted me to jump through before allowing me to complete a process.

    There is so much push at Live.com to create a FaceBook social network and Google alternative, that they sacrifice and destroy the productivity advantages that should come from owning both the local productivity environment, and the Cloud. What a waste.

    ~ge~

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