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Google targets MS Office users with PowerPoint-like app

Google Inc. has added a PowerPoint alternative to its suite of Web-based office productivity tools. Will SMBs toss out Microsoft Office?

Months of speculation about whether Google would add a PowerPoint competitor to its suite of free, Web-based applications ended last week when Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt announced a new business presentation feature called Presently.

Speaking at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, Schmidt continued to insist Google Apps isn't aiming to take on Microsoft Office. "We don't think it's a competitor to Microsoft Office," Schmidt reportedly said. "It's casual and sharing, and a better fit to how people use the Web. My guess is many companies in the audience are building products like this or other variants of this using the emerging architecture."

Still, it's obvious that the addition of Presently means Google Apps now mirrors MS Office when it comes to functionality. For decision makers at small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), the new Google Apps feature is another reason to test the free Web-based product -- even if they keep MS Office close by.

"I expect over time we'll use more of the Google Apps products, but at this stage they're not robust enough," said Jason Winship, managing principal of Sea Change Management LLC, a small, San Francisco-based venture capital firm. Winship's company is among the SMBs that use both the Google and Microsoft suites.

Sea Change uses Gmail and Google Talk, Google's email and instant messaging elements. His company also uses the Google Apps calendaring application and its word processing tool to create documents collaboratively.

"It allows you to collaborate back and forth in a group when there are documents that require input from multiple people," Winship said. "The integrated nature of the chat feature into Google Apps is one of its major strengths. You can make real-time changes and the other person or people can see them in real time and you can have a chat window open in the document where you can discuss the changes."

But Sea Change relies heavily on spreadsheets created in Microsoft Excel. And Winship said the analytical capabilities of Google's spreadsheet application aren't robust enough for his company's needs.

"In terms of producing a professional-quality work product that requires sophisticated formatting, or in the case of Excel with its very sophisticated data analysis tools, I don't know that any" of the Google Apps applications are ready to supplant Microsoft Office applications, Winship said. "I would hope that would someday be a reality."

Though Google Apps is free and available for download on the Web, Google does make a premium version available for purchase. For $50 per user, Google's Premier Edition offers more email storage (10 GB versus 2 GB per account), 24/7 phone support, a service-level agreement and user provisioning and management.

Jeff Kaplan, managing director of consultancy THINKstrategies Inc. in Wellesley, Mass., said Presently should draw business users in companies of all sizes. But, he added, Office isn't likely to be abandoned so quickly.

"In the short term it's unlikely too many businesses are going to throw away Microsoft applications in favor of Google Apps entirely because they're not sophisticated enough to meet all the day-to-day business requirements," Kaplan said. "But it's very possible that's going to change."

Google's claim that it isn't trying to compete with Microsoft Office doesn't ring true for Kaplan at this point. "They know they are in fact going directly after Microsoft's preeminence in this marketplace," he said.

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