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How Google is going to own the cloud


I had the opportunity to interview Jonathan Rochelle today. Jonathan is the group product manager for Google Docs. We talked about Google Docs, collaboration, the cloud, and of course Microsoft. Google Docs is the primary alternative to SharePoint/Office and takes a different tack to this world – and Jonathan did a superb job of laying all that out.

Jonathan is a programmer by background (which automatically makes him cool). His background is financial software, with a lot of it aimed at Wall St. This included a start-up that had a spreadsheet product that was then purchased by Google. This became the start of the Google Docs project at Google in 2006 – so Jonathan was working on Google Docs before there was a Google Docs project.

My first question is what is the reason for Google Docs existence? Jonathan took this through a couple of steps. The initial impetus for Docs was a desire to enable collaboration. So it was more a file sharing and desire to access the docs through the browser that was the first goal for Docs. We then dove in to what is the payoff of Docs for Google now.

First Jonathan talked about consumer (free) use. He said Google's goal with this is to get people to use the web more. It's not to run ads, it's not to make money, it is merely to make people more comfortable using the web. Google views this as a key strategic goal – to enable people to do more on the web. Secondarily there is the business version that has additional functionality added to make it a strong solution for businesses.

I then asked if Docs impacting Microsoft's revenue from Office was a motivator. Jonathan said that "is not a goal… and has never actually been a driver." He was pretty adamant on this saying that Google "has fallen into a competitive space with Microsoft" as opposed to it being a purposeful challenge to Office.

My $0.02: Docs costs Google a lot of time and money. Yes there's value to them in having people do more on the web. And yes there is significant value down the road in having people use Google for their business apps. But the fact that they are not trying to monetize the consumer version at all sure makes it look like this is focused on owning this segment.

My next question was the limited functionality compared to Office. His first answer was that Docs presently provides what 80 – 90% of business users need. But he later followed up saying that they are continuing to add functionality to try to add in everything most people need.

I followed up by asking about the Docs UI compared to the ribbon in Office. Jonathan was very gracious in talking about the really good work Microsoft put in to designing the ribbon concept. He then discussed how Docs is much more intuitive for someone sitting down who has no training and that there is great value in this. Jonathan did say that in the future they will probably look at the UI approach and look for improvements there, but the way he said it this is a long way off.

I then asked about the issues surrounding depending on an internet connection to access your documents. I brought up my case where we have Qwest as a provider and so the connection is down for a bit every couple of weeks. Jonathan replied that people are dependent on their Internet connection for so many things that they don't find this an issue. They see the future with the cloud will have people are comfortable assuming that their Internet connection will always be up.

But he says the required connectivity is an issue for people when they take a plane flight and want to work on their documents. They are in the process of providing the functionality to cache documents for airplane flights, etc. And he points out there are a couple of 3rd party apps that already do a good job of providing this functionality.

My next question was the key one – how does Google Docs compare to SharePoint/Office 2010? Jonathan started with a spot-on observation, that the new Microsoft release is really a giant swing toward the cloud. He is very happy to see this because Microsoft's move in this direction is a big vote of confidence in putting apps up on the cloud, and that validates Docs.

He then talked about the power of applications that provide collaboration via the cloud. This was interesting for a couple of reasons. First Jonathan focused on the new paradigm of placing all of these apps on the cloud, not about Google vs. Microsoft. He's a strong believer in this (aren't most of us?) and clearly what he finds cool is that Microsoft has validated this approach big time.

Even more interesting was his discussion about why this approach was so powerful. Nothing about eliminating the overhead of installing your own apps, nothing about the savings, nothing even about ease of use. His discussion about the giant advantage of the cloud is collaboration. That the increases in productivity due to collaboration provided by the cloud are incredible. And they are seeing that internally at Google as well as with their customers.

My $0.02: With every smart person in our industry saying the cloud is the future, I always wonder if they're right. Usually they are, but remember pen computing? I do think the cloud will drive a lot, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

He had a very insightful comparison of the two – Google started in the cloud with collaboration and has been adding productivity applications. Microsoft has started with individual productivity applications and has now added collaboration over the cloud.

I then pointed out that this does put Docs and Office in the same spot, so what are the differences. Jonathan discussed how Docs is a lot easier to just sit down and use. And that collaboration is baked in to it from the beginning. He sees that Microsoft has not gotten rid of some of the issues it has with working smoothly on the cloud because this version Office is the first to go this way. And he finished up with the simplicity of the Google pricing model compared to Microsoft's incredibly complex pricing (very true).

I next asked about the internal social media provided by SharePoint where they can be very specific about what access is allowed by what people on each blog, wiki, etc. Jonathan dove into the policy controls they provide across the apps giving companies very detailed granular control. The specifics of what they can do on mail sounds amazing. They are also in the process of adding this level of control for blogger, Google Sites, etc.

My $0.02: I think Jonathan laid out a very fair differentiation between the two offerings. Each comes in with strengths and weaknesses. I do think this is the main battleground for which company will own the cloud, and both have very compelling offerings. And the coming access control on blogger, etc. will be a major improvement.

I then asked about support for 3rd party apps providing hooks into the apps for those apps. Jonathan discussed several approaches that can be taken but the bottom line was that they think they now have a very powerful API to support 3rd party apps. My company tried to use the API over a year ago and it was not robust enough for us, but with what he was describing it sounds like it now is.

So that led to the question of what would he suggest ISVs looking at 3rd party apps for Docs. He said there remains a very large number of opportunities, especially for vertical apps. He pointed out that this is all so new that there are large holes in what is offered to companies. He called out cases where a product will empower remote workers as being gigantic. He also suggested a payroll system (good idea – ADP's online system sucks).

I next asked him what advice he would give to a start-up company, but not one of the standard 5 – 10 everyone says. His first suggestion was leverage work other companies have done as much as possible. He then followed up with write it to use the open standards and architect it to scale and respond quickly from the start.

My $0.02: Superb technical advice. The less you have to do, the sooner you can deliver – be lazy and leverage every way you can. And the architect it right to start – ignore that advice at your peril.

I followed up asking how do ISVs become a top Google strategic partner. Jonathan said that the key component is to provide something that customers find very useful. When customers say they have to have it, then Google finds it very interesting.

I also asked if Google will have content directories. Jonathan said this was an interesting question, but he thinks search is getting good enough that there is no longer a need for content directories. (I think this is spot-on, search is better, and more up to date, than any human edited directory can match.)

My final question was asking what the industry media landscape will be like in 5 – 10 years. Jonathan thinks there will be some consolidation of credible sources. He also thinks we'll see more rating of sources like the Apple iStore has ratings of the apps it provides. Note he's not talking Digg which rates a post, he's talking rating of sites based on the type of content they provide.

My $0.02: This is a really interesting idea. Most people already do this for the type of info they want regularly, selecting the sites they hit. But a site rating system would let people find similar sites that might be better. And finding the best sites to hit on topics they are interested in occasionally. (If you create the killer rating site that implements this – you owe Jonathan some stock for the idea.)

I closed out asking Jonathan if he wanted to add anything. He then did a good job of selling me that my company needs to look at porting our application to Google Docs. He was also very gracious in the nice things he said about Windward.

My $0.02: It speaks very well of his desire to see more 3rd party apps for Google Docs that he took advantage of this to sell me. And it was a very compelling argument, we will seriously consider porting AutoTag to Docs in 2 – 4 months.

What Does This All Mean?

Google Docs vs. SharePoint/Office is where the fight for ownership of the cloud will occur. Both Google and Microsoft have very distinctive offerings, each with strengths and weaknesses. For some companies one will be clearly superior for their needs. For many it will be a close decision.

But the big issue is not Google vs. Microsoft, it's the change we are going to see as we move to the cloud. And I think Jonathan nailed it where he sees the big change coming from the revolutionary improvements in collaboration. Over the last 15 years we have seen a significant transformation in the work environment from what was fundamentally a group of individuals each doing their part (toward a common goal) to an integrated team that works as a unit. Collaborative efforts are much more productive. Even more important, they can accomplish goals that a group of individuals would find difficult or impossible.

Google is clearly focused on the central advantage of placing all of the business apps on the cloud. And they know this world well, that's where they've been from the start. This gives them a gigantic advantage in providing this functionality. Plus they are on generation N of a cloud based collaborative system. And it's a really cool system – that counts.

For those of you that do not have a collaboration system in place yet, you should check out Google Docs. And if you would like to see Windward AutoTag (enterprise reporting, docgen, & dashboards using business applications as the designer) ported to Google Docs, please drop us a line.

Podcast: Jonathan Rochell Interview

Tags Start & End

Tags Can Start & End Anywhere

Appendix B

.NET code for multi-page image output

Appendix A

Java code for multi-page image output

Data Bin Search

The Data Bin can now be searched to find a table, column, node or other piece of data without scrolling through it all.

Shrink to Fit

This will shrink the contents of a cell until it fits the defined cell size.

Time Zone Conversion

A new Windward macro has been added to help with converting dates and times from UTC time to the local time zone.

Image Output Format

New image output formats added.

PostScript Output Format

PostScript, commonly used with printers and printing companies, has been added as an additional output format.

New and Improved Datasets (Designer, Java Engine, .NET Engine)

Datasets have been re-written from scratch to be more powerful and easier to use.

Stored Procedure Wizard (Designer)

This works for all tag types that are connected to a SQL-based data source (Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle, MySQL, or DB2).

Boolean Conditional Wizard (Designer)

Before, conditional statements could only be written manually. Now they can also be built using our intuitive Wizard interface.

Reorganized Ribbon

The ribbon menus have been re-organized and consolidated to improve the report design workflow.

XPath 2.0 as Data Source

Adds various capabilities such as inequalities,descending sort, joins, and other functions.

SQL Select Debugger

SQL Select  Debugger

  • The look and feel was improved
  • Stored Procedure Wizard
  • Improved Exceptions pane

Tag Editor/Tag Selector

Added a Query tab as a field for typing or pasting in a select statement

  • Color Coding of Keywords
  • TypeAhead
  • Evaluate is now "Preview"

Rename a Datasource

All tags using that Data source will be automatically updated with that name.

Connecting to a Data Source

New single interface to replace 2 separate dialog boxes

Tag Tree

Displays of all the tags in the template, structured as they are placed in the template. This provides a simple & intuitive way to see the structure of your template. Also provides the capability to go to any tag and/or see the properties of any tag.

Added Javelin into the RESTful Engine

Support for Google Application Engine Integration

The ability to integrate the Windward Engine into Google’s cloud computing platform for developing and hosting web applications dubbed Google Applications Engine (GAE).

Additional Refinement for HTML Output

  • Improved indentation for ordered and unordered lists
  • Better handling of template header and footer images
  • Better handling for background images and colors

Redesigned PDF Output Support

This new  integration will allow for processing of complex scripts and bi-directional  text such as Arabic.  Your PDF output  will be much tighter and more closely match your template, and we’ll be able  to respond rapidly to PDF requests and fixes.

PowerPoint Support

Includes support for new ForEach and slide break handling, table header row repeat across slide breaks, and native Microsoft support for charts and images.

Tags are Color Coded

Tags are color coded in the template by type, making it easy to visually identify them.

Increased Performance

Version 13’s core code has been reworked and optimized to offer a reduced memory footprint, faster PDF generation and full documentation of supported features and limitations in the specifications for DOCX, XLSX and PPTX.

Advanced Image Properties

Documents can include advanced Word image properties such as shadows, borders, and styles.

Improved HTML Output

Windward has updated HTML output to reflect changing HTML standards.

Version 13 New Data Sources

Windward now works with a slew of new datasources: MongoDB, JSON, Cassandra, OData, Salesforce.com

Generate Code

The Generate Code tool in the designer allows you to open an existing template and, with a click of a button, automatically create a window with the code needed to run your current template with all data sources and variables. Simply copy this code and paste into your application's code in the appropriate place. You now have Windward integrated into your application.

You only need to do this once. You do not do this for each template. Instead, where it has explicit files for the template and output, change that to parameters you pass to this code. Same for the parameters passed to Windward. This example uses explicit values to show you what to substitute in where.

Pivot Tables Adjusted in Output

Any pivot tables in an XLSX template are carried over to the XLSX output. The ranges in the pivot ranges are adjusted to match the generated output. So your final XLSX will have pivot tables set as expected in the generated file.

This makes creating an XLSX workbook with pivot tables trivial.

Imported Template Can be Set to Match the Parent Styles

In an imported sub-template, if its properties for a style (ex. Normal) differ from the parent template's properties for the style, the use in the sub-template can be set to either use the properties in the sub-template, or the properties in the parent.

You set to retain when you don't want the child template's styling to change when imported. You set to use the parent when you want the styling of the imported template to match the styling in the parent.

Any explicit styling is always retained. This only impacts styling set by styles.

Tags can be Placed in Text Boxes

Tags can be placed in text boxes. Including linked text boxes. This gives you the ability to set the text in a textbox from your data.

Tags can be Placed in Shapes & Smart Art

Tags can be placed in shapes & smart art. This gives you the ability to set the text in a shape from your data.

HTML Output Supports Embedded Images

When generating HTML output, the engine can either write bitmaps as distinct files the generate HTML references, or it can embed the images in the HTML providing a single file for the output.

Footnotes & Endnotes can Have Tags

You can place tags in pretty much any part of a template, including in footnotes & endnotes.

Document Locking Supported in DOCX & XLSX

Any parts of a DOCX or XLSX (PowerPoint does not support this) file that are locked in the template, will be locked the same in the output.

Specify Font Substitution

If a font used in the template does not exist on the server generating a report, the font to substitute can be specified.
In addition, if a glyph to be rendered does not exist in the font specified, you can specify the replacement font. This can be set distinctly for European, Bi-Directional, and Far East fonts.

Process Multiple Datasources Simultaneously

If you need this - it's essential. And if you don't need it, it's irrelevant.

Windward enables you to build a document by applying multiple datasources to the template simultaneously. When Windward is merging the data into a template, it processes the template by handling each tag in order, and each tag pulls from different datasources. (As opposed to processing all of one datasource, then processing the next.)

This allows the select tag to use data from another datasource in its select. For example, if you are pulling customer information from one data source, you can then pull data from the sales datasource using the customer ID of the customer presently processing to pull the sales information for that customer. If you're interested in patching together your data from multiple datasources, read this post on our blog.

David Thielen

President/CEO at Windward Studios

From his early years as a Senior Developer at Microsoft, to legendary designer of the popular Enemy Nations strategy game, to reporting and document generation guru, Dave has never lost his passion for building superb software and teams.

Written by:_
David Thielen
President/CEO at Windward Studios


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