How Google is going to own the cloud

I had the opportunity to interview Jonathan Rochelle today. Jonathan is the group product manager for Google Docs. We talked about Google Docs, collaboration, the cloud, and of course Microsoft. Google Docs is the primary alternative to SharePoint/Office and takes a different tack to this world - and Jonathan did a superb job of laying all that out.

Jonathan is a programmer by background (which automatically makes him cool). His background is financial software, with a lot of it aimed at Wall St. This included a start-up that had a spreadsheet product that was then purchased by Google. This became the start of the Google Docs project at Google in 2006 - so Jonathan was working on Google Docs before there was a Google Docs project.

My first question is what is the reason for Google Docs existence? Jonathan took this through a couple of steps. The initial impetus for Docs was a desire to enable collaboration. So it was more a file sharing and desire to access the docs through the browser that was the first goal for Docs. We then dove in to what is the payoff of Docs for Google now.

First Jonathan talked about consumer (free) use. He said Google's goal with this is to get people to use the web more. It's not to run ads, it's not to make money, it is merely to make people more comfortable using the web. Google views this as a key strategic goal - to enable people to do more on the web. Secondarily there is the business version that has additional functionality added to make it a strong solution for businesses.

I then asked if Docs impacting Microsoft's revenue from Office was a motivator. Jonathan said that "is not a goal... and has never actually been a driver." He was pretty adamant on this saying that Google "has fallen into a competitive space with Microsoft" as opposed to it being a purposeful challenge to Office.

My $0.02: Docs costs Google a lot of time and money. Yes there's value to them in having people do more on the web. And yes there is significant value down the road in having people use Google for their business apps. But the fact that they are not trying to monetize the consumer version at all sure makes it look like this is focused on owning this segment.

My next question was the limited functionality compared to Office. His first answer was that Docs presently provides what 80 - 90% of business users need. But he later followed up saying that they are continuing to add functionality to try to add in everything most people need.

I followed up by asking about the Docs UI compared to the ribbon in Office. Jonathan was very gracious in talking about the really good work Microsoft put in to designing the ribbon concept. He then discussed how Docs is much more intuitive for someone sitting down who has no training and that there is great value in this. Jonathan did say that in the future they will probably look at the UI approach and look for improvements there, but the way he said it this is a long way off.

I then asked about the issues surrounding depending on an internet connection to access your documents. I brought up my case where we have Qwest as a provider and so the connection is down for a bit every couple of weeks. Jonathan replied that people are dependent on their Internet connection for so many things that they don't find this an issue. They see the future with the cloud will have people are comfortable assuming that their Internet connection will always be up.

But he says the required connectivity is an issue for people when they take a plane flight and want to work on their documents. They are in the process of providing the functionality to cache documents for airplane flights, etc. And he points out there are a couple of 3rd party apps that already do a good job of providing this functionality.

My next question was the key one - how does Google Docs compare to SharePoint/Office 2010? Jonathan started with a spot-on observation, that the new Microsoft release is really a giant swing toward the cloud. He is very happy to see this because Microsoft's move in this direction is a big vote of confidence in putting apps up on the cloud, and that validates Docs.

He then talked about the power of applications that provide collaboration via the cloud. This was interesting for a couple of reasons. First Jonathan focused on the new paradigm of placing all of these apps on the cloud, not about Google vs. Microsoft. He's a strong believer in this (aren't most of us?) and clearly what he finds cool is that Microsoft has validated this approach big time.

Even more interesting was his discussion about why this approach was so powerful. Nothing about eliminating the overhead of installing your own apps, nothing about the savings, nothing even about ease of use. His discussion about the giant advantage of the cloud is collaboration. That the increases in productivity due to collaboration provided by the cloud are incredible. And they are seeing that internally at Google as well as with their customers.

My $0.02: With every smart person in our industry saying the cloud is the future, I always wonder if they're right. Usually they are, but remember pen computing? I do think the cloud will drive a lot, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

He had a very insightful comparison of the two - Google started in the cloud with collaboration and has been adding productivity applications. Microsoft has started with individual productivity applications and has now added collaboration over the cloud.

I then pointed out that this does put Docs and Office in the same spot, so what are the differences. Jonathan discussed how Docs is a lot easier to just sit down and use. And that collaboration is baked in to it from the beginning. He sees that Microsoft has not gotten rid of some of the issues it has with working smoothly on the cloud because this version Office is the first to go this way. And he finished up with the simplicity of the Google pricing model compared to Microsoft's incredibly complex pricing (very true).

I next asked about the internal social media provided by SharePoint where they can be very specific about what access is allowed by what people on each blog, wiki, etc. Jonathan dove into the policy controls they provide across the apps giving companies very detailed granular control. The specifics of what they can do on mail sounds amazing. They are also in the process of adding this level of control for blogger, Google Sites, etc.

My $0.02: I think Jonathan laid out a very fair differentiation between the two offerings. Each comes in with strengths and weaknesses. I do think this is the main battleground for which company will own the cloud, and both have very compelling offerings. And the coming access control on blogger, etc. will be a major improvement.

I then asked about support for 3rd party apps providing hooks into the apps for those apps. Jonathan discussed several approaches that can be taken but the bottom line was that they think they now have a very powerful API to support 3rd party apps. My company tried to use the API over a year ago and it was not robust enough for us, but with what he was describing it sounds like it now is.

So that led to the question of what would he suggest ISVs looking at 3rd party apps for Docs. He said there remains a very large number of opportunities, especially for vertical apps. He pointed out that this is all so new that there are large holes in what is offered to companies. He called out cases where a product will empower remote workers as being gigantic. He also suggested a payroll system (good idea - ADP's online system sucks).

I next asked him what advice he would give to a start-up company, but not one of the standard 5 - 10 everyone says. His first suggestion was leverage work other companies have done as much as possible. He then followed up with write it to use the open standards and architect it to scale and respond quickly from the start.

My $0.02: Superb technical advice. The less you have to do, the sooner you can deliver - be lazy and leverage every way you can. And the architect it right to start - ignore that advice at your peril.

I followed up asking how do ISVs become a top Google strategic partner. Jonathan said that the key component is to provide something that customers find very useful. When customers say they have to have it, then Google finds it very interesting.

I also asked if Google will have content directories. Jonathan said this was an interesting question, but he thinks search is getting good enough that there is no longer a need for content directories. (I think this is spot-on, search is better, and more up to date, than any human edited directory can match.)

My final question was asking what the industry media landscape will be like in 5 - 10 years. Jonathan thinks there will be some consolidation of credible sources. He also thinks we'll see more rating of sources like the Apple iStore has ratings of the apps it provides. Note he's not talking Digg which rates a post, he's talking rating of sites based on the type of content they provide.

My $0.02: This is a really interesting idea. Most people already do this for the type of info they want regularly, selecting the sites they hit. But a site rating system would let people find similar sites that might be better. And finding the best sites to hit on topics they are interested in occasionally. (If you create the killer rating site that implements this - you owe Jonathan some stock for the idea.)

I closed out asking Jonathan if he wanted to add anything. He then did a good job of selling me that my company needs to look at porting our application to Google Docs. He was also very gracious in the nice things he said about Windward.

My $0.02: It speaks very well of his desire to see more 3rd party apps for Google Docs that he took advantage of this to sell me. And it was a very compelling argument, we will seriously consider porting AutoTag to Docs in 2 - 4 months.

What Does This All Mean?

Google Docs vs. SharePoint/Office is where the fight for ownership of the cloud will occur. Both Google and Microsoft have very distinctive offerings, each with strengths and weaknesses. For some companies one will be clearly superior for their needs. For many it will be a close decision.

But the big issue is not Google vs. Microsoft, it's the change we are going to see as we move to the cloud. And I think Jonathan nailed it where he sees the big change coming from the revolutionary improvements in collaboration. Over the last 15 years we have seen a significant transformation in the work environment from what was fundamentally a group of individuals each doing their part (toward a common goal) to an integrated team that works as a unit. Collaborative efforts are much more productive. Even more important, they can accomplish goals that a group of individuals would find difficult or impossible.

Google is clearly focused on the central advantage of placing all of the business apps on the cloud. And they know this world well, that's where they've been from the start. This gives them a gigantic advantage in providing this functionality. Plus they are on generation N of a cloud based collaborative system. And it's a really cool system - that counts.

For those of you that do not have a collaboration system in place yet, you should check out Google Docs. And if you would like to see Windward AutoTag (enterprise reporting, docgen, & dashboards using business applications as the designer) ported to Google Docs, please drop us a line.