perspectives

A bridge too far – why Google’s Docverse acquisition might not be a good idea

A bridge too farGoogle recently acquired a company called DocVerse. DocVerse  offers a Microsoft Office plugin that ostensibly brings Google Docs-type collaboration to these hitherto static desktop application.

A number of blog reactions have emerged lauding the move as a “shot by Google at Microsoft” and a mechanism to “bridge the gap” between desktop office software (specifically Microsoft Office) and browser-based online office services (Google Docs). The rationale is that users can use the Office+Docverse combination to edit and collaborate on documents on the desktop and Google Docs to do likewise in the browser while Docverse, in addition, serves as the channel to move the document across the desktop and the web. This would give users the choice and flexibility of working either on the desktop or in the browser and allow them to seamlessly switch from one platform to the other.

Lets take a look at how this would presumably work.

In its current (pre-Google) incarnation, Docverse consists of two parts: a client plugin which wraps around Microsoft Office and enables collaboration (co-editing, version management) and a browser-based version where the same document can be viewed (but not edited) within a web page. Each time a user updates a  shared document within Microsoft Office, the Docverse plugin pushes the document to the server and updates the browser-based rendition to reflect the latest changes. Users can add annotations/notes in the browser version but not modify the actual document content itself.

Now, the rationale of the Google acquisition seems to be that the browser-based version of Docverse can be replaced with Google Docs – this would allow users to edit the document within the browser and presumably these changes would be updated in the desktop version essentially implying that the sync would now be two-way (“web to desktop” as well as “desktop to web”) instead of the one way (just desktop to web) version that Docverse has currently.

While this sounds good in theory, there is one small design aspect that renders this argument non sequitur…

There is an intrinsic distinction in the way Google Docs and Microsoft Office handle documents internally – without getting into technical minutiae,  the crux of the point is that while Microsoft Office documents have a rich and complex format (both the “old” binary representations – doc, xls, ppt and the new Open XML formats – docx, xlsx, pptx), Google Docs essentially converts these documents to plain HTML. While this might seem like a simple superficial distinction, the fact of the matter is that this difference is the reason why Google Docs don’t “play well” with Microsoft Office. Try importing any Microsoft Office document into Google Docs, make a change and export it back to the original Microsoft Office format – you will find that this “round trip”, more often than not, significantly destroys document data and formatting. Once a Microsoft Office document is converted to HTML, it is almost impossible to revert it to back to the original format without fidelity loss of some kind.

Given this aspect, in the above scenario, each time a “round trip” happens between the desktop and the browser versions and back, it would be a lossy exercise that would expose the gulf between Microsoft Office and Google Docs in as stark a manner as you can imagine. In the current architecture, this chasm is quite simply too far to bridge!

Of course, this is not Docverse’s fault in any way as it has no role to play in the workflow for converting Microsoft Office documents to the Google Docs document format and vice versa (and hence cannot improve it in any way) – in fact, writing an office plug-in that leverages Google’s APIs to import and export documents to/from Google Docs is, in itself, almost trivial (many others such as the likes of Offisync have built similar offerings) and I suspect that, if it so chooses, Google could have developed something like this in a matter of days. The point is that Docverse is in no way a panacea to the Microsoft-Google gulf  and if anything, will only accentuate the stark incompatibilities between the two worlds .

What does makes this interesting though is that the Docverse team seems to think otherwise as demonstrated by this quote on their blog post – “Our first step will be to combine DocVerse with Google Apps to create a bridge between Microsoft Office and Google Apps.” If this is indeed true, we would really to like to see how they pull it off!

Post Script: We would typically not make statements on events/activities where we have no locus standi – the only reason why this specific acquisition is interesting to us is that Docverse is very similar to our original Live Documents offering that we had developed more than three years ago (this blog post summarizes how we have evolved since) – the Live Documents plugin could allow Microsoft Office users to collaborate on their documents in real-time in a similar manner but unlike Docverse, we never stored user documents on our servers (our contention was that people would be loath to store their documents on a third-party server) and despite this, our plugin was smart enough to track changes and merge them into all document instances without any conflicts.

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