By K. William Gibson
Q. Bill, I read that Google has announced free word processing and spreadsheet programs to go along with its free calendar. Does this mean they're taking on Microsoft and its MS Office suite? And do the new Google apps look suitable for law firm use?
A. To get an expert's perspective on your question, I consulted well-known Microsoft-watcher and longtime Law Practice contributor G. Burgess Allison. Burgess advises that the newest Google applications aren't very sophisticated but the announcements are still very important. He says, "Not any single application or service will be the killer app or straw that breaks the 800-pound gorilla's back. Instead, it's the breadth, and richness, and portability of the Google applications that represents such a huge threat to the Microsoft juggernaut."
According to Burgess, "Microsoft's technical approach, while they were busy trying to kill off competitors in general and Netscape in particular, was to bundle everything they could into a single massively integrated neo-suite that blurred the lines between application and operating system. While that may have suited the business model and helped carry the day in Microsoft's antitrust case, it has turned into a massively integrated pain in the neck every time they try to update it." Google, he says, is rolling out a new service every week or two, while Microsoft is "struggling to roll out the things they already own, and the more they try to bundle, the more daunting the task becomes."
The secret, Burgess points out, is that Google is "following an architecture that is operating-system agnostic." Each service or application is discrete and users can pick and choose which ones to use. While the applications "know about one another," they don't rely on each other.
What Google is building, according to Burgess, is a remotely accessible architecture that supports people who are not in the same location, or even in the same network. These "are pieces of an important toolkit that allows teams of people to work together—remotely and collaboratively," he says.
Having said that, Burgess concedes that Google's word processor and spreadsheet are not viable alternatives to local PC-based word processing, spreadsheets and calendars and that as "applications" they are modest, at best. He says they lack the "type of security model that would make me feel comfortable sharing the type of extremely private and privileged communications that a law firm deals with" but that "the day for that is not too far off."
But will the Google apps, he asks, "be able to match up with the enterprise-class, practice-specific applications that represent engines for today's most sophisticated legal applications?" He answers his own question with an emphatic," No way. But the services, as a group, are remarkable breakthroughs that advance the state of the art and make it available to everyone. This round of services is definitely consumer-class rather than enterprise-class." And as Google continues to raise the bar, "the boys from Redmond will find themselves less and less the center of attention as Microsoft falls behind."
For additional perspective, I also consulted Joseph Kashi, a litigator in Alaska who writes regularly about legal technology issues for the Law Practice Today Webzine and other publications. Joe, similar to Burgess, believes that "even though Google's Web-based programs are really cool and capable, Google's announcement will not result, in the short run, in any significant changes to how most lawyers practice law." Joe also points out, "There is a great deal of inertia in the installed software base—people keep using the products that they already know and have purchased." To illustrate, he offers this example: "Some years ago, Sun made the highly capable Star Office suite available as a free download. Star Office worked with almost all major operating systems, was easy to use, and was feature-rich. Despite these advantages, amid predictions of doom for Microsoft Office, Star Office never made a major dent in the office suite market."
So will Google's new tools meet the same fate as Star Office? Maybe not. Joe says that over the long run "collaborative office tools such as Google's Writely word processor and its new spreadsheet program will probably be very useful for collaborative work by geographically disbursed law firms." But at this point, he advises, "Google's products are best suited for routine work or initial drafts that do not require extensive formatting, such as pleadings or richly detailed or embedded graphics."
In assessing the ultimate matchup between these two big vendors, Burgess doesn't mince words when describing Microsoft as "the new IBM: a slow behemoth dragging an intractable legacy." Google, on the other hand, "is the new Microsoft: agile, smart and rolling out products with an almost palpable sense of fun and accomplishment." Although, at the same time, he says, "Google is becoming an 800-pound gorilla of its own" with enormous market clout.I can't wait to see what they come up with next and how Microsoft responds.