Is Google’s Haphazard App Development Path a Master Plan or an Epic Fail?

image Much of the time, it seems to me like Google develops apps the way a squirrel hides nuts.  Toss as many of ‘em out there as quickly as possible, knowing that you’ll come across some of them later, even as others are forgotten or lost.  Maybe this is a brilliant master plan, or maybe it’s a sign of something else.

Like a lack of focus?  Or a waste of resources?

As we all know, I started moving into the cloud last year.  As a part of that, I attempted to abandon Microsoft Office, and set myself and my family members up with a Google Apps account.  It wasn’t really a level playing field, though, since I still had Office on my downtown office computer and my work laptop.  It took about a week for my entire family to mutiny in the name of getting Office back.  I used Google Docs for my personal word processing, which involves mostly letters and some light spreadsheet work.  Even that was pretty frustrating.

But once school started and my kids had to actually create documents, the mutiny was in full force.  So I capitulated and reinstalled Office, less Outlook.  We all agree that Gmail is an acceptable (to them) and preferable (to me, because of the cloud-based location) email client.  Though, it’s worth pointing out, only Better Gmail 2 makes it so.  Without that fantastic add-on, even the Gmail interface is needlessly cluttered and you can’t collapse your tags (which I use as folder-equivalents).

While Gmail, at least when hacked right, is great, for anything other than your great grandmother’s level of word processing, Google Docs are completely and totally unworkable.  This is really surprising to me, since Google Apps has a Premium version, and at least up to now had the very real potential to do the two things Google loves most: make some money and hurt Microsoft.  But for some utterly insane reason, Google continues to let Google Apps lie in a fallow, disjointed state, preferring to devote its resources to adding needless social networking features.  None of which will ever make Google Apps the robust Microsoft killer it could be.

No one, and I mean no one, can tell me this makes any business sense.

So why is it happening?

At the same resource wasting time, Google continues to toss more nuts into the ground: Latitude (remember all the initial hoopla about this now forgotten location sharing app?), file sharing on iGoogle and something called Orkut (where the hell is the real GDrive?), Wave (which is about as happening as FriendFeed these days), Buzz (the buzz surrounding which had the half-life of Jesse James’ relationships), Google Reader (a great app that is being ignored in favor of the momentum play du jour).  The list goes on and on.

Seriously.  Does someone at Google HQ look out the window, see someone talking on a phone and and say “Hey, that reminds me.  Don’t we have an app called Google Voice, or something like that?  Let’s spend 10 minutes on that before we get back to this Twitter clone we’re working night and day on.”

The press, as a whole, doesn’t help.  Some combination of clue deficiency, Google lust and the need to say stupid things so people like me will click over to yell at them makes the press write articles that allow Google to pretend that all of this is going swimmingly.  When it’s so clearly not.

For example, I was astounded today to see an article at C|Net speculating, yet again, that maybe we don’t need Office anymore, because we can bathe in the wonder of Google Docs.  Then I noticed that this dude is a Linux guy.  I suppose when you think Linux is preferable to Windows 7, you probably think Google Docs is the greatest thing since the keyboard.  Still, this might be the single most blatantly incorrect sentence ever strung together:

And at some point, CIOs are going to realize that the vast majority of their employees don’t spend any time mucking around with pivot tables or drafting documents. At most, people use Outlook, and buying an entire Office license to get e-mail feels like overkill.

WHAT?  Are you kidding me?  People in companies all over America spend all day and all night doing exactly that.  And then sending those documents, with tracked changes (which of course Google Docs can’t do), to other people who take their turn.  Over and over.  Even the email part is wrong, as Outlook is the most dispensable part of Office.

To even suggest that corporate America could use Google Docs is to demonstrate that you’ve never spent a day working in corporate America.  It’s this problem that Google should be focused on.  Because the right cloud based application could serve corporate America.  Google Docs, as it currently exists, is about as far away from being that app as possible.

Paul Thurrott, taking a page out of my sermon book, gets it right:

I don’t believe that Google’s free tools–Google Docs, part of Google Apps–represent a technical or financial challenge to Office at all….  Microsoft Office is vastly superior to every single office productivity solution there is.

As Paul points out, about the only thing Google Apps can do for corporate America is serve as a stalking horse.

Open Office is a mostly workable solution, and does make Google Apps look pitiful by comparison, but then again so does Zoho.  For that matter so does a piece of chalk lying on a sidewalk.

Microsoft could own the cloud based office productivity space if it wanted to.  It just doesn’t want to yet- while the cloud is still forming.  We’re seeing the price of Office fall over time, clearly as a result of that stalking horse.  Perhaps Microsoft will eventually take flight (or be forced) into the cloud.

Until then, we will have to search for other options.

But Google Apps is not one.  It’s just another lost nut waiting to be rediscovered.