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Google, Spreadsheets, and Innovation

This morning, Michael Arrington, Om Malik and Paul Kedrosky (among many others) are taking potshots at Google (GOOG), triggered by Google Spreadsheets.  They’re right in as much as there has been a spate of yawners coming from Google recently, and Google Spreadsheets is the latest.  Many of Google’s “innovations” are starting to look like Microsoft’s (MSFT) “fast follower” strategy of the last 30 years.  Wait for someone to show the way, copy it, and market the snot out of it.

Building a substitute for Microsoft Office is a waste of time and investor dollars.  Wordperfect Office and OpenOffice already exist, filling the cheap and the free segments of the office productivity marketplace well.   And the “network computer“?  Just like Larry Ellison, the inventor of that cock-a-mamie idea, it’s getting closer and closer to retirement all the time.  When a 3 Ghz computer, with 100G of storage and 512M of memory, can be had for $400 (I bought one the other day at Staples), why do I need a network version of my software to run on my cheap diskless workstation again?

There may be a silver lining in this cloud, however, if Google and others can look beyond chasing Microsoft’s tail lights. It’s called Web 2.0 the programmable web.  Spreadsheets, to use today’s example, are used for many many different things.  They’re used for calculations, modelling, accounting, database front ends, simple databases, formatting charts, and simple list making, to name just a few.  What would the world look like if the vision of folks creating Web based spreadsheets was to create a great mash-up tool, rather than a substitute for a desktop productivity app?  What if I could easily embed a calculation right in this post, by dragging a few cells from my spreadsheet into my edit window?  What about easily creating front end forms for web based databases using a familiar spreadsheet metaphor?  What about separating presentation from data, and allowing users to create their own UI metaphors, perhaps breaking the grid metaphor that has dominated spreadsheets since the invention of Visicalc?

These examples aren’t even that innovative.  I just haven’t had my morning coffee yet. 

Folks looking to build web based substitutes for office productivity applications are stuck in the same time warp that folks building VoIP “carriers” are stuck in today.  They’ve discovered how to reduce their cost basis by building a product that uses the internet as its platform.   Some customers find that price differential significantly attractive enough to switch.  Switching en-masse, however, isn’t going to happen until someone provides a 10x improvement in value beyond what is currently available.  Inertia is working against them, and in favor of the incumbents.  That’s the challenge. 

If you can reinvent the office productivity suite, then you’ll have my attention (not to mention the world’s attention). Merely reproducing the office suite (whether on the web, or the desktop) is like watching midgets wrestle sumo champions — an interesting spectacle, but the outcome is already certain.

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Andrew June 7, 2006, 6:25 am

    Isn’t the frustrating part of Google’s ho-hum applications, the fact that most webtrepreneurs believe they could do better, without the unlimited resources and without the team of PhD’s that Google has access to.

    In my experience, for the most part; web/voice 2.0 people want to change the world, push the envelope, make things more Steve Austin’ish, but it seems that there is a ‘just do enough to tease them’ attitude that is part of the Google collective consciousness. Where is that startup passion and disruptive spirit? and why can’t it go into every app., they produce?

    And you drink coffee? http://www.teeccino.com/Top10Reasons.aspx :)

  • Alec June 7, 2006, 7:08 am

    Herbal Coffee, Andrew? If I wanted to drink boiled hay, then I'd order boiled hay. I want a cup of coffee!

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