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Google ports Office-substitute app to Chrome OS, Chrome browser

QuickOffice in the browser another weapon in Google's campaign against Microsoft Office, say analysts

Google confirmed today that it has ported part of QuickOffice, a popular iOS and Android app substitute for Microsoft Office, to a technology baked into Chrome OS and the company's Chrome browser.

The search giant acquired QuickOffice in mid-2012, and rolled the iOS and Android apps -- and QuickOffice's development team -- into its Google Apps group. As an app for the iPhone, iPad and Android-powered smartphones and tablets, QuickOffice lets customers view, create, and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents.

Techcrunch was the first to report that Google was bundling QuickOffice viewers with the $1,300 Chromebook Pixel notebook, and that editing functionality would be added to the Chrome OS-powered laptop in the next two to three months.

To do that, Google ported QuickOffice to "Native Client," a technology that lets developers turn applications written in C and C++ -- originally intended to run in, say, Windows -- into ones that execute entirely within a browser, specifically Google's own Chrome. Google claims that Native Client code runs almost as fast inside the browser as the original did outside.

Chrome OS, of course, is built atop Chrome the browser; both support Native Client. The latter has featured Native Client support since Chrome 14, which launched in September 2011.

Although Google has debuted a partial native client edition of QuickOffice on Chrome OS, and plans to wrap up the port on that platform, there are no technical barriers that prevent the finished application from also running within the Chrome browser on Windows, OS X and Linux.

Google declined to comment on whether or when it will offer QuickOffice for Chrome.

Analysts saw the porting of QuickOffice to Chrome OS -- and the potential for bringing the application to Chrome on other platforms -- in the context of the ongoing war between Google and Microsoft over the lucrative business productivity market.

"I presume that they're delivering QuickOffice on the Pixel, and would through the browser, because it's a superior solution to what they can deliver through Google Apps," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, citing factors including offline access and faster response from the locally-installed QuickOffice. "But QuickOffice also adds to Google Apps' appeal."

As a mobile app, QuickOffice costs $15 for Android and iOS smartphones, and $20 for the tablet editions. Google Apps for Business subscribers, however, have had access to a free iPad version since last December.

"The question is, 'How good of an Office experience can Google provide?'" said Al Hilwa of IDC. "If QuickOffice in Chrome does approximate [Microsoft] Office, then that's a challenge for Microsoft, a serious one."

It's no surprise, then, that Google has added QuickOffice to bolster Chrome OS. "Google has to do a lot more with Chrome OS to make [Chromebooks] more attractive in the enterprise," said Hilwa. "The platform has to be bolstered with serious apps that add value."

And taking QuickOffice to the browser also makes sense. "They want to bring the fight [for business apps] to as many platforms as they can," he said. "A more native experience in their stack is a must play in the enterprise [because] Google's problem is to break Microsoft's dominance, and to do that they need to do everything they can."

But Gottheil wasn't as sure as Hilwa that QuickOffice in a browser had to come close to the experience of Microsoft's Office -- or achieve 100% document fidelity -- to hurt Microsoft.

"What Microsoft has to be afraid of is large businesses with large Office deployments taking a look at their usage patterns, and deciding that they can split employees into two groups, one that must have the real Office, the other where Google Apps or QuickOffice are good enough," argued Gottheil. "I don't see that happening yet, but if it does, that's trouble up and down the line for Microsoft."

How Google will price QuickOffice as a native client on Chrome OS and/or Chrome remains a mystery. One pretty good bet: QuickOffice native client will be bundled with Apps for Business, which costs $5 per user per month, or $50 per user per year.

Google would probably sell a native client version of QuickOffice through the Chrome Web Store, which already features a smattering of native client applications and games.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Read more about web apps in Computerworld's Web Apps Topic Center.


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