“Three smart people. One big, group paper assignment. What’s the best way for them to work together and create something extraordinary?” So begins a Microsoft-created ad rubbishing Google Docs and promoting Microsoft Office and SkyDrive.
The YouTube video marks an escalation in hostilities between the two software superpowers in what will be a mother of battles to own the cloud. Can Microsoft take on the king of search? Or will Google beat Microsoft, the marketing genius?
The likely answer is that people born into a Microsoft-only world are unlikely to change while younger generations will lean towards Google.
Microsoft and Google have taken pot shots at each other before from the safety of their own domains. Witness this comparison of Google Docs to Microsoft Word and a cost calculator for replacing Microsoft Exchange 2007 servers with Google Apps.
(Really, $118,000 to run two email servers for three years seems a tad high, Googlers. GoneGoogle.com is much prettier.)
Microsoft has kept its powder dry for years no doubt because it didn’t have an answer to Google Apps, Google’s business suite. With the launch of Office 365 in June last year Microsoft can start throwing punches with more confidence.
The attack ad is really about one issue – formatting. Microsoft has spent many versions of Office polishing features such as SmartArt, graphs and typography and it is a valid and real point of difference to Google Docs. The lack of formatting options is one of the most common dealbreakers for companies considering a move to Google Apps.
And people that use Office’s extensive formatting are more likely to stay Microsoft customers. Fancy images and fonts are very difficult to import intact into Google Docs or Google Apps.
Let’s go through the document created in Microsoft Office and see whether the effects can be replicated in Google Docs.
In Google Docs:
1. You can’t shade all the text in headings.
2. There is no text wrap so it would be impossible to format it around the images of planets.
3. Google Docs does not allow columns.
4. And because of point 3, you can’t add a picture to a right hand side column.
But did you know that you can’t do all this with the online version of Microsoft either? In fact Office Web Apps has even fewer formatting options than the Google Docs suite.
I’ve gone through the differences in the business cloud platforms before. The consumer versions are not too dissimilar.
The game is really Microsoft’s to lose. It can’t increase its lead in the productivity suite by adding more SmartArt. The suite itself is becoming commoditised.
Google’s formatting will get better. It added pivot tables and graphs last year to Google Spreadsheet. Google is also working on adding some ability to do offline editing through HTML5 trickery.
The biggest threat to Google is that Microsoft sells itself on the advantage of owning productivity on the desktop and extending enough of that to the cloud to make Google Docs unnecessary or unattractive by comparison. But this can only work in the short term while Google Docs is a distant second in the features race.
The long-term threat for Microsoft is that people decide that Google Docs provides just enough features that they no longer need to spend money on Microsoft Office.
“That’s where the good times end, because Google Docs just isn’t as powerful as Microsoft Office,” the narrator says at one point in the attack ad. That may be true, but not everyone needs all the power Microsoft delivers.