Google Spreadsheets To Launch Shortly

Google is to release a new Google Spreadsheets product on Tuesday, allowing anyone with a web browser to create and interact with spreadsheet information.

The product will be a limited test release, which basically means first come, first served until Google shuts off the flow. Want it? Then watch Google Labs. Google Spreadsheets was planned to be posted there at 6am Pacific time Tuesday, when I talked with the company about the service earlier today.

Another crazy non-search direction for Google? Not so much, to me. People store a lot of useful information in spreadsheets. Giving everyone a free one does help encourage the spread of that information.

But wait a minute! Wasn't that Google purchase of Writely -- an online word processing tool -- what drove me over the edge earlier this year and prompted my 25 Things I Hate About Google story? Yeah. But it wasn't that Writely was non-search. Instead, that was more about Google doing so many things that some stuff didn't seem finished.

Businesswise, Google Spreadsheets it's a super smart move in the battle against Microsoft by hitting at a Microsoft strength, Microsoft Office. When Google partnered with Sun last October, many expected a big push to get OpenOffice out as a Microsoft Office rival. Perhaps that might come. Google even said it would put some resources behind it. But the real action to steal away Office users is likely to come through web apps, I'd say.

Google already has Writely, a light-weight word processor. Google Spreadsheets gives a second element to the office suite that's being built up. Sure, Office is a mature product that's going to be more suitable for robust work. But it's also costly and a pain to install, speaking for one who has had to do it many, many times.

I doubt I'd ever dump Excel. I love it too much. Word's a piggish program, but if I'm dealing with long documents, I know it will handle them. But the next time I bring up a computer for my wife or mother-in-law and their far less intensive needs, giving them a Writely or a Google Spreadsheets will be a strong alternative to tracking down a spare copy of Office, believe me.

Such a change will bring them and others from the Microsoft to the Google camp. Plus, it's not just the app that ties them in. The data is staying over with Google, as well. Sure, you can export it and move -- but many people won't bother. They'll be hooked in yet another way to the Big G.

Enough strategy. What's the spreadsheet do? First what it won't do -- charts. You want to graph? This isn't for you, not yet. Charts will come over time. Also, don't expect macros to work. Aside from that, you can:

  • Import and export from .xls and .csv files
  • Share and collaboratively edit with others
  • Have multiple sheets
  • Select and navigate in a way Google says will feel comfortable to most spreadsheet users
  • Use over 200 functions, including some said to be "fairly complex"

As I said, it's a limited test launch. When the open invite closes, the general public can no longer get in. That's expected to be the case for the next couple of months (and no news on when Writely will open back up, by the way -- as an alternative, you might try Zoho Writer). But those who are accepted into Google Spreadsheets will be able to invite others. After all, a key feature of this product is to be able to share information with others. You can't share unless your friends, families and coworkers aren't also in the program.

How about two tricky areas, privacy and backups. On the privacy front, Google said there will be a policy posted explaining what's protected when you save to a Google server. If it's sensitive and you're worried, then don't use the program -- or any similar program offered by a third party. Not worried? Still read the privacy policy when posted and get comfortable with it.

As for backups, I wrote before about how a few Gmail users were upset that they'd had data go missing with no hope of recovery. Google said it doesn't expect this will be an issue with Google Spreadsheets (and to be honest, it's a miniscule issue with Gmail). Still, if that data is important, DO NOT leave your only copy with Google. Make a local backup (and hey, backup your Flickr photos and your YouTube videos, while you are at it! Backup up everything you leave with a third party).

Some bits and pieces stuff. Like Writely, the core of Google Spreadsheets comes via an acquisition, that of 2Web Technologies, which made XL2Web. The site over there reflects nothing about Google's ownership, but that's likely to change shortly.

How about the official why do Google Spreadsheets?

"We feel strongly about people creating and sharing information on the web," said Jonathan Rochelle, product manager of Google Spreadsheet. "Google Spreadsheets will allow people to take an organizational tool they already use and make it much easier for them to share and make it accessible."

Rochelle said he was expecting people to use it for both personal reasons (sharing fantasy sports data) and business reasons. As for more on the why:

"We think that there's already a large need for this product. People are already emailing spreadsheets back and forth," he said. "Providing something where there is no download and they can access from any machine we think is a compelling reason to use this product."

Can't wait? As I said, watch Google Labs. Missed out, if it closes early? Num Sum is one alternative product you might try. gOffice, FlySuite and ThinkFree are some others (and Taking on the Office gorilla, online from ZDNet is a nice interview with ThinkFree). I mentioned Zoho Writer earlier, but Gary Price notes they have an entire office suite.

There's also Microsoft Office Live, currently free while in beta. Well, maybe it's a solution. Here's the comparison chart of the various flavors, but none of them overtly say if things like word processing or spreadsheets (core apps of Microsoft Office non-live) are included.

Got a favorite app that I missed? Want to comment on Google's plans? Please comment in our Search Engine Watch Forums thread, Google Spreadsheets Launches, Takes On Microsoft.

Postscript: Nathan's posted about what looks to be a live sign-up page now here, along with help info and the privacy policy.

Postscript 2: There's lots and lots of other commentary popping up out there now. If you want an easy at-a-glance view, try this link from Techmeme, as well as this and this.