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Google enters areas that seemed unlikely

After a word processor and calendar, Google now offers presentation software; that too absolutely free, reports Puneet Mehrotra.

india Updated: Jun 22, 2007 03:20 IST

When two giants fight, do pygmies get steamrolled? Perhaps not. In the world of the Internet, strange things continue to happen. Google, considered not so long ago to be a search engine and little else, has slowly entered territories that would have seemed unlikely.

With its search-based advertisements and blogs, it resembles a media company, rivaling the likes of Yahoo and AOL.

With its free e-mail (gmail) it sounded like an old-fashioned Web service provider, rivaling Yahoo and Hotmail. With software applications for office productivity, such as documents, spreadsheets and a calendar – all free and attached – it has taken on Microsoft, the independent giant.

And then, in April, Google purchased Tonic Systems, which makes backend software for presentation systems. Zenter, a company that created front end editing tools for presentations was taken over a few days ago. In other words, Microsoft’s famous PowerPoint now has a challenger that can be easily accessed –for free.

Microsoft is not exactly sleeping on the job. With its Windows Live search, in which an “always-on” Internet will throw up relevant searches, and with its consumer-friendly features like blogs on the MSN network , it is challenging Google.

Microsoft’s chief executive officer Steve Ballmer said a year-and-a-half ago: “We won the desktop. We won the server. We will win the Web. We will move fast, we will get there. We will win the Web.”

The war has just begun, but there is a new battle every now and then in a new terrain.

The latest is one between the desktop, which Microsoft has dominated thanks to the personal computer revolution that it rode on, and the “total Web experience” that Google wants to take on.

Last month, Google launched a programme to create offline (desktop) applications called Google Gears, literally shifting its gears to get into an offline mode. Google Gears is an Open Source initiative, under which programmers can tweak and change to customise or improve software applications. Google Gears will ensure the availability of data and applications when there’s no Internet connection available, or when a connection is slow or unreliable. That would sound perfect to many Indians, who live with power cuts and power Internet connections.

Google Gears provides three key technology features:

A local server, to cache and serve application resources (HTML, JavaScript, images, etc.) without needing to contact a conventional server, which is a real network computer to which desktops (clients) are linked.
A database, to store and access data from within the browser.
A worker thread pool, to make Web applications more responsive by performing expensive operations in the background.
As a result, developers will be able to make software applications with the assurance that they will work offline and online across browsers.

“This new browser extension is being made available in its early stages so that everyone can test its capabilities and limitations and help improve upon it,” said a Google spokesman. “The long-term hope is that Google Gears can help the industry as a whole move towards a single standard for offline capabilities that all developers can use.”

Gears is perhaps an example of a clever ploy executed by Google to get into a territory long dominated by Microsoft. Google doesn’t have much to lose, because its revenues don’t really come from companies, but Microsoft has a lot to defend because its cash cow, the Microsoft Office suite and other applications targeted at corporate users, is under attack from the freebies that Google offers.

Another reason is that Google Gears very intelligently gets the Open Source community of worldwide developers get involved in a guerrilla war of sorts against Microsoft in the technology industry.

This further helps Google in terms of getting more innovation through individual and joint developer efforts, distributed computing, moving applications towards a single standard for offline capabilities. You could say Google is a wannabe giant backing the underdogs against an entrenched giant.

Microsoft has its own ammunition ready. It is better on the “Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007” to help corporate customers do collaborative work in an always-on Internet mode, taking into company networks something that they may otherwise be tempted to do on the public Web through Google’s applications. SharePoint is perhaps one of the best applications in the recent times which allow data, files and knowledge collaboration. Google’s user base is of simply anybody and everybody. Microsoft users are corporate users. In other words people who “pay” to use. While the war goes on, arms merchants might yet win.

Indian-born Rakesh Mathur is one such man. A startup he has founded, called Webaroo, which has developed an offline browser, may yet be wooed by Google. Mathur, who sold Junglee.com to online retailer Amazon to make his first big fortune, may yet join the Google revolution. Incidentally, Junglee’s chief executive at the time of Amazon’s acquisition, Ram Shriram, another big Indian, is already on Google’s board.

(Puneet Mehrotra is the editor of a journal devoted to business and technology issues)