Google has bought Upstartle, a beta-stage Silicon Valley firm that was on course to release a word processing software service that can be used via the web. The deal is the clearest indication yet that Google plans to compete with Microsoft in the Office market, and that it is unlikely to go down the OpenOffice route to do so.
Upstartle was six months into a public beta test of Writely.com, which billed itself as The Web Word Processor, offering users the ability to upload or create documents and edit them with a familiar ‘what you see is what you get’ (WYSIWYG) interface.
For such a young product, it promises a surprising number of fairly advanced features, such as the ability for more than one person to work on a document simultaneously, protected by collision detection and revision control features.
There’s also the ability to publish in a variety of ways. Instead of saving a document, users can publish it to their blog website or to other users of their choosing.
In others words, Writely is the archetypal ‘Web 2.0’ startup, and a perfect candidate to be acquired by a company as acquisitive and wealthy as Google.
And the acquisition announcement was pure Google – revealed in blog postings comprising talk of lava lamps, free employee lunches, some nonsense about butterflies, but little in the way of real information.
Google is playing its cards close to its chest again, and declined to comment beyond the two companies’ blog postings, but enough is known about Writely that it’s reasonable to speculate on where Google may be taking it.
The most obvious place to start speculating is where this places Google competitively against Microsoft. Could a move to web-based word processing eat into sales of Office, one of Microsoft’s biggest cash cows, for example?
While all the editing is done in an HTML interface, Writely can convert documents from Word format, as well as RTF, PDF, and the OpenDocument Format used in OpenOffice. Users can save their documents online or to their own computer.
Microsoft has nothing comparable yet. Its Office Live brand suggests such a move is at least on the company’s mind, but Office Live is currently just a web hosting and email service, with no sign of hosted Office in sight.
However, Office is not just about Word, and while Google has a decent web-based email service, it does not yet have a spreadsheet capability to compete with Excel, or equivalents to Powerpoint or Access.
These product holes are likely to draw attention to other startups that could be acquisition candidates. Websites such as NumSum.com and iRows.com, for example, offer cool little Ajax apps for creating spreadsheets via the browser.
The acquisition also puts yet another question mark next to Google’s relationship with Sun Microsystems, announced last autumn, in which Google indicated it would attempt to promote OpenOffice, a Sun-backed open source project.
The speculation prior to the Sun-Google announcement in October had been that Google would build an Ajax front end for a version of OpenOffice that it would host. It seemed unlikely at the time, and the Upstartle acquisition makes it seem less likely.
Google already spurned OpenOffice when it launched Google Pack, a downloadable software bundle that included Microsoft competitors such as Ad-aware, RealPlayer and Firefox, but did not feature OpenOffice.
Writely has several thousand beta testers, which are not charged for the service. Prior to the acquisition, the company had indicated that it would charge for premium features, such as the ability to create PDFs.
Following the acquisition, Google closed the doors to further beta registrations until the company can migrate the software back-end to Google’s existing platform.