Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A case study in disruption: Google Spreadsheet

Google Spreadsheet lacks many common features available in Microsoft Excel. There are plenty of reviews on Google Spreadsheet comparing its features with Microsoft Excel. See Rod Boothby's 'Spreadsheet wars!...' , Computer World's 'Google Spreadsheets is more powerful than you think', Zoli's comparison of Google Spreadsheet and Zoho, Vinny Carpenter's 'Google hits a home run with Google Spreadsheets',Ken Fisher's 'Google's new spreadsheet is about file formats, not MS Office'.

It is my contention that it is irrelevant as to whether Google Spreadsheet is better than Microsoft Excel or not. In fact, limited functionality that suffices for only the novice Excel user or non users is the audience that Google may be targetting.

In Innovator's Dilemma Clayton Christensen talks about disruptive innovation as distinct from sustaining innovation. "Disruptive technologies, however, are distinctly different from sustaining technologies. Disruptive technologies change the value proposition in a market. When they first appear, they almost always offer lower performance in terms of the attributes that mainstream customers care about. In computer disk drives, for example, disruptive technologies have always had less capacity than the old technologies. But disruptive technologies have other attributes that a few fringe (generally new) customers value. They are typically cheaper, smaller, simpler and frequently more convenient to use. Therefore, they open new markets. Further, because with experience and sufficient investment, the developers of disruptive technologies will always improve their products' performance, they eventually are able to take over the older markets. This is because they are able to deliver sufficient performance on the old attributers, and they add some new ones."

Originally uploaded by Anshu Sharma.

As one will notice, Google spreadsheet fulfilss many of the criteria to qualify as a disruptive innovation:
  1. Google Spreadsheet is cheaper: In fact, its free! In due course of time, Google will monetize this offering just as it has monetized email and search probably via ads.
  2. Google Spreadsheet is simpler: Microsoft Excel is today a sophisticated business application used by businesses small and large to calculate sales, review product and sales data, create sophisticated forms, display charts and pivot tables. Google Spreadsheet does none of that- at least not yet. And in this apparent limitation, it has a shot at serving the un-served and the under served.
  3. Google Spreadsheet is more convenient to use: You can fire Google Spreadsheet up by simply pointing your browser to a URL. To the sophistacted IT gurus (the one's like me that blog) it may be obvious how to use Excel and may be an easy-to-use app but if you have been up late at night watching Video Professor trying to sell millions of 'How to learn Excel' videos- you will realize that there are millions of Americans (and others) who have never used Excel and if Google is to succeed, probably never will.
  4. Google Spreadsheet has some new features: Google Spreadsheet lets you easily share your spreadsheets allowing multiple users to edit the spreadsheet, and making it very easy to publish the results. With Office, to get the same set of features and many more that you don't need and will never use, you would have to buy Excel (to create the spreadsheets), Exchange (to email it to each other) and Sharepoint (to publish it on its portal)- all 'Enterprise ready' software that frankly is an over kill for SMBs and individuals.
So while many of us IT enthusiasts and cutting-edge technology lovers will obsess over whether or not Excel + Live is better (or will be) than Google Spreadsheets, we may be missing the core idea. It is the simplicity, lack of high-end functionality, lack of compatibility (yes the truth is Google Spreadsheet is not going to be able real 'all' Excel files) and cheaper cost (or lack of apparent business model) that may end up being the greatest competitive advantage Google Spreadsheet has.

This also has lessons for the open-source community that has been trying to fight the Microsoft Office gorilla over the years with a look-alike Open Office. The problem with Open Office is that it is so similar to Office that they are fighting for mostly the same users, with limited differentiation. If you use Open Office you just get a cheaper but much harder to maintain version of Microsoft Office that many users are unable to use as it is deceptively similar yet different. The limited success (or astounding failure) of Open Office has lessons in store for Google as it goes about rolling out applications one at a time. They should continue to focus on building new applications that provide similar functionality as MS Office but not try to copy MS Office.

Microsoft, on the other hand, should adopt a co-option approach to the Web 2.0 Office applications. If the new Web 2.0 Office challgenging applications are similar and compatible, they can become training grounds for future Excel users. It may also acquire other players in the market like Zoho or others and provide users with a genuine choice under Microsoft umbrella. Finally, Microsoft can create disruption by changing how it packages and sells Office. Innovations in packaging and bundling may include subscription pricing and pricing based on actual usage of features. Enterprises, small and big, hate paying forhigh-end features that 90% of users may never use. Rather than deciding up front if I need to buy Professional or Home edition, I should be able to subscribe to a minimal offering and then upgrade (and downgrade) based on my actual usage requirements.

Microsoft's two most profitable businesses are under new threats- Windows from Linux and Office from Google and other Web2.0 application start-ups. It is my opinion that neither of these competitor's, Linux or Google Spreasheets (and other Web2.0 apps), are superior to Microsoft's offering. In fact, they may be inferior in many ways. However, in analyzing the threat they pose to Microsoft, we should focus on their disruptive business models and serving of newer markets and novice users and not on function/feature bake-offs. The success of Google Spreadsheets may depend on whether it is able to build an ecosystem independent of Microsoft Excel and not become a victim of co-option. And open-source community and other disruptive technology vendors have much to learn from how this war turns out and how it is conducted irrespective of who wins.


Zoli Erdos said...


Thanks for commenting on my blog. I agree with you. None of these online spreadsheets have to be functionally comparable to Excel to be disruptive.

The fact that they are available, support the most frequently used functions and enable sharing / collaboration is all that matters.

That said, if I can pick the functionally richer and better looking one, which happens to be part of a complete suite, and is still free, of course that's what I pick.

But to come back to your idea, disruption is what matters. In that sense Google Spreadsheet's arrival is important, it validates the concept, and actually strenghtens the positions of the "little guys". :-)

Anshu Sharma said...

Yes, excellence in execution of a strategy does matter which in this case translates into building an online spreadsheet that is easy-to-use and has features that users like you and I want to use. Picking the right strategy (Disruptive Innovation in Google's case) is just step number one. I concur with you.

Look forward to continued conversation.

mc1 said...

I am not sure if Web spreadsheets will be as disruptive as other online apps. To me Wikipedia is the greatest example of a disruptive collaborative media. In comparison, if online/wiki spreadsheets are only shared among a few users then it will not have the same impact.

The other point you mentioned was the cost of spreadsheets, but OpenOffice/MS Office bundling has already made it a commodity. So I think Google Spreadsheet's main advantage is limited to its convenience.