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Google Fatigue Sets In

Users are reacting to Google’s new online spreadsheet with a big yawn. Is the company searching for a strategy?

Can there be too much of a good thing? Some Google watchers are beginning to think so. Leading technology bloggers’ reactions to Google Spreadsheets, which allows users to build and share simple Excel-like spreadsheets on line, have ranged from lukewarm to hostile.

A section of a demonstration Google spreadsheet.

That’s a first for Google, which is accustomed to winning kudos every time it rolls out a free, Web-based version of some function previously confined to the PC desktop – the realm long ruled by Microsoft. For instance, in place of the Windows search function, the company created Google Desktop in 2004. As a competitor for Outlook, there’s the one-two punch of Gmail and Google Calendar. For Word, there’s the soon-to-be-relaunched Writely, an online word-processing program. In lieu of Publisher, there’s Google Page Creator, and for MSN Messenger, Google Talk. And now, up against Excel, there’s Google Spreadsheets. (Many observers expect that, if only for completeness, Google will create an online presentation-builder akin to Microsoft’s PowerPoint.)

Until the limited beta launch of Google Spreadsheets on June 6, technology bloggers and other early adopters greeted each new Google service with enthusiasm – seeming to relish the possibility that Google was contemplating a serious move against Microsoft Office. But this time around, critics are assailing Google’s latest offering for having several technical weaknesses. And, more significantly, they’re beginning to question whether Google’s long-term strategy in the arena of Web-based software applications is good for the company, for users, and for the Web.

“When is the last time Google released a product that really changed our lives?” asked Michael Arrington, author of the popular TechCrunch blog, in a recent posting about Google Spreadsheets and the company’s photo-management program, Picasa. “For me, it was (and is) their core search engine…They need to build aggressive and visionary products, kill stuff that doesn’t work…and start telling us what Google 2.0 is going to be.”

Google Spreadsheets – like every spreadsheet program since VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 pioneered the genre (and created the first real demand for PCs) in the early 1980s – helps users create tidy data tables and do basic number-crunching, such as adding up the entries in a column. Since finished spreadsheets are stored on Google’s Web servers, users can access them from any computer running Firefox or Internet Explorer, and share the documents with specified collaborators simply by sending invitations to their e-mail addresses.

But, unlike Microsoft Excel, Google Spreadsheets can’t create charts and graphs, and it lacks some of Excel’s mathematical capabilities, such as array multiplication. “It’s not an Excel killer,” writes Computerworld columnist Richard Ericson. “If you’re a financial analyst responsible for consolidating large budget spreadsheets, you’re not going to adopt Google Spreadsheets. Need a chart? Stick with Excel. Ditto for graphics (such as WordArt) or PivotTables.”

While generally positive about Google Spreadsheets, Ericson says the program isn’t as powerful as Calc, the spreadsheet component of the free open-source office productivity suite created by OpenOffice.org.

Indeed, online versions of sophisticated desktop tools are bound to be weak competition at best, argues Stan Beer, a columnist at ITWire. “All the hype that has been generated about the new Google Spreadsheets is sheer rubbish,” Beer writes. “Word processors and spreadsheets are complex applications. They’re hard enough to build for the desktop let alone the online space….Despite all of this, as soon as Google releases a rudimentary – some might even call it experimental – online spreadsheet, the world goes crazy.”

In fact, Google launches most of its online applications as experiments – they’re called “beta” versions and listed as “Google Labs” inventions. But some commentators say they’re tiring of this strategy, and that Google applies the beta label too often and for too long. Gmail, for example, is still in its beta phase 26 months after its debut. “This has traditionally been Google’s method of deflecting criticism: if something is beta, after all, it’s not finished, and any problems can be fixed,” writes Barbara Krasnoff in the online journal Linux Pipeline.

Google is aware of this criticism. “We’ve probably abused the word ‘beta’ a little bit,” co-founder Sergey Brin recently admitted at a Google press event on May 10. “We want to enable our teams to throw some things out there even though they may not be useful for anything, but we still want to get some feedback. But gradually, both internally and externally, people have put more expectations on the things we throw out there. We need to communicate which things we expect to work well and the other things where you guys are the guinea pigs, frankly.”

Put together Google’s spreadsheet, word processor, e-mail manager, instant-messaging program, photo manager, and other tools, and it’s easy to think that the company intends to displace Microsoft as the main provider of productivity applications to average computer users. Yet Google executives consistently evade or deny such suggestions, saying they prefer to focus on the companies’ core businesses of search and keyword-based advertising.

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