A world in which software from Google has replaced much of today's Microsoft () hegemony seems far-fetched. But advances in technology and the hints dropped by the very secretive Google suggest that it could become a reality a few years down the road.
The most interesting recent development was the Oct. 4 announcement of a strategic alliance between Google and Sun Microsystems (). The only detail revealed was an insignificant plan for Sun and Google to distribute some software for each other. In the longer run, however, this could be a big deal indeed for computer users, especially at home, in schools, and in small businesses.
A Google-Sun alliance, if it flowers, could take advantage of new technology for running applications on the Web, one that eliminates the sluggishness and limited functions of traditional Web-based programs. The most widely used approach is based on an industry standard called Ajax, and a second method uses Macromedia () Flash. Either can produce programs that look and feel like the desktop ones running on your hard drive. Screens redraw nearly instantly, and you can use the mouse to drag and drop text or other objects. Yahoo! (), EarthLink (), and Microsoft's Hotmail are testing mail services that, in speed and responsiveness, behave more like Outlook than like clunky Web mail. Google Maps is also a showcase for this technology.THE KEY TO ANY GOOGLE APPLICATIONS package could be Sun's StarOffice, a desktop productivity suite that matches Microsoft Office program for program. StarOffice costs $75 for Windows or Linux, or you can download a similar package for free from OpenOffice.org. While lacking some of the polish of Microsoft Word or Excel, StarOffice is more than adequate for most consumer, educational, and small-business uses. It can now accurately read and write files in Microsoft formats -- something that was problematic in earlier versions. The main difficulty is with documents that have programs, or macros, embedded within them. StarOffice uses a different programming language and can't run custom Microsoft programs without conversion. But this is an issue mainly for corporate users.
Google and Sun would face formidable challenges if they decide to turn StarOffice into a Web-based suite. The technical job of reworking the suite into software suitable for Web delivery is a big one. On the plus side, Sun and Google both have deep knowledge of how to run the sort of large, complex network that would be required.
The business hurdles may be even greater. Although the rental of Web-based software has gained some traction among companies -- Salesforce.com's customer-relations-management program being a prime example -- it will likely be a tough sell to consumers. And it is hard to see how Google's basic model of selling ads closely tied to content could work with a word processor or spreadsheet. But Google has been good at finding ways to make money from services, such as search and free e-mail, where no one else saw much chance for profit.
Nothing Google or anyone else does is going to disrupt Microsoft's hold on corporate desktops. Most companies have invested too much in an Office-based ecosystem to consider changing. But other markets, including education, could be up for grabs, especially if Google were to devise an offering that was easy to use and free of the ever-increasing bloat of Office features that only interest corporate users. If Microsoft executives aren't worried, they should be.For a collection of past columns and online-only reviews of technology products, click here By Stephen H. Wildstrom