Saturday, November 05, 2005

Some random thoughts on a web-based office suite

Ever since Sun and Google announced their partnership early in October, speculation has been rife on the possibility of a web-based office suite, aptly titled "GoogleOffice". However, there has not been any strong indication of such an effort underway. In fact a number of industry watchers were disappointed when Google and Sun announced that the initial collaboration would be on bundling the Google toolbar with Java runtime downloads.

Now that Microsoft is alligning itself as a services provider and trying to offer integrated solutions by bundling its diverse product portfolio (Office, MSN, messenger etc) along with its new service initiatives (Windows Live, Office Live), it is probably time that Google looked into countering these overtures with appropriate answers - I think there is nothing more fitting here than an office solution which integrates Gmail, Google Talk, Google Desktop and the Firefox web browser.

Perhaps such an effort is already underway in Google Labs. However, here is my vision for such a solution, a kind of blue print for a future GoogleOffice on the web.

Google office will be a collaborative suite integrating Gmail, Google Desktop, Google Talk and Firefox. Ideally it should have the following components:

1. An open-office plugin for Firefox
2. An extension to Google desktop that allows Gmail attachments to be searched and accessed.
3. An extension to Google talk that allows members to access attachments in their Gmail account and also share files and folders through Google Desktop.

Let me explain:

1. The Firefox plugin will allow one to view Openoffice documents inside the Firefox web-browser. Initially this need to support only OOo native file formats and the OpenDocument format, but MS office support would be preferable.
2. Right now attachments cannot be searched in Gmail. Google needs to add this capability to Gmail. Attachments can be searched by name, but they also need to be searchable by content.
3. Google desktop integrates with Gmail, but again attachments are not searchable or accessible. This capability need to be added to Google Desktop so that one can search and access documents stored as attachments in his Gmail id through Google Desktop.
4. The same capability should be added to Google Talk so that one can search for attached documents from Google Talk.
5. Integration between Google Talk and Google Desktop so that chatters can share documents with each other and search each others desktop, given sufficient access control privileges.

All these pieces will allow for a basic GoogleOffice over the web. Let us look at some common scenarios:

1. Someone is browsing in an Internet cafe - He wants to view an OOo document sent to his Gmail id as email attachment. Typically Internet cafes do not have OOo so he is at a loss (This happens to me quite often). This is where an OOo plugin for Firefox can help. Gmail need not know anything about this plugin. It can be a regular firefox plugin. In this case, Firefox will detect that the plugin is not installed, will download and install it automatically. Voila, you can view your OOo document inside firefox.

I dont think it will be too difficult to develop such a plugin, considering that the source code for OOo is open and the OOo file formats are well documented. This will also help in large scale acceptance of OOo file formats in a way similar to PDF. Editing capabilities will also be nice but this could be tough to implement in a browser plugin.

I would like to see plugins for all OOo file formats but specifically OOo writer (.sxw), OOo impress (.sxi) and the OpenDocument formats.

2. Adding capability to search and find attachments in Gmail will allow people to use Gmail as a sort of virtual storage for their documents (read office documents). I tend to do this even now, but because the attachments are not searchable, the experience is crippled. Initially these can be added for well known and open formats such as PDF and the OOo file formats.

3. Once Gmail is enhanced with advanced capabilities to search attachments, this capability should be integrated with Google desktop which can then index the attachments and make them searchable from the desktop. Considering the work involved in indexing large attachments, it actually makes sense to add this capabillity only to Google desktop rather than onto Gmail directly.

4. This opens up the possibility of integrating Firefox, Gmail and Google Desktop for searching, accessing and modifying office documents. One can use Google Desktop to search office doucments stored in his Gmail account, then open and edit them on his desktop inside Firefox using the OOo plugin. If OOo is installed on the machine already, it can be used instead.

5. The last missing piece is Google Talk. Google Talk should integrate with Google desktop allowing querying of documents (Gmail, desktop, photos etc) through Google Talk. Google should add capabilities to Google Talk which will make this possible not only on one's own desktop but across desktops.

That is, you can give privilges in Google Talk to selected Google Talk users (your friends, co-workers, family), to search and access documents from inside your desktop and also your Gmail id. These can be controlled by access at various levels - read-only, read-write etc.

If one finds documents of interest they can be shared and edited online. Google should provide something like a shared space for two interested parties to share documents as a part of Google talk. This space can either be part of Gmail or separate from it. However, it should allow for saving documents by multiple Google talk users, acting as a kind of collaborative space.


Thus Google Talk and Google desktop along with Gmail and Firefox can be used to build a virtual collaborative office suite on the web which if done well, can probably pose some compeition to Microsoft office solutions and the recent office collaboration initiatives. It will also allow to take the OOo efforts to the web and provide it as a part of a services offering instead of the current stand-alone product.

Perhaps this vision is a bit grand, but I don't think it is a difficult one for Google and the open source (read Openoffice) community. All the pieces are already there, they just require some additional capabilities and some plumbing to work as a unified, web-based solution.

I have not thought to deep about the technical aspects of such a solution but a very interesting thought will be the role Java and Google toolbar can play in this integrated approach. Perhaps Java can be used to develop the Firefox OOo plugin also.

I hope we can expect to see a web-based office solution from Google, Sun and the OOo community within the next 12 months.

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