by Jean-Louis Gassée

One must be at least a little skeptical of product reviews, and, even more so, product reviewers. They usually don’t spend their own money on the product and they’re under constant pressure to produce more newspaper columns, or blog post after blog post.
There are exceptions: I trust Consumer Reports (they buy the products they test); Walt Mossberg and David Pogue provide consistent, intelligent reviews. I don’t always agree with them, but I respect their intellect and ethics.

I’m not a “professional” reviewer; I buy the gadgets that I read about (just ask my wife, Brigitte, who claims there’s “one of each” in various rats nests around the house). And I don’t test them; instead, I do my best to use them in a real project.

This brings us to Google Apps. (For a look Under The Hood, see the May 24th 2010 Monday Note here.)

For Google Apps, the real project was (and still is) a French newsletter and blog imaginatively named Note du Lundi. I buy a domain name and the paid-for Premiere version, the one where they answer your tech support questions. If you do it right—that is, if you buy your domain with your Google Checkout account and register it through—the process is easy, the domain registrar offers hosting services, and the on-phone tech support is competent and pleasant.

I fire up the Google Docs app that comes with my newly-purchased domain and start writing a newsletter article. Wanting to make a point by using a graphic, I drag and drop a picture from my Pictures folder. No dice. Instead of this:

I get this:

Google Docs knows where the image lives, and it also knows its type (PDF)—but it can’t insert it into the document I’m creating. An “antique” desktop word processor would have no trouble with the task.

I try another path: There’s an Insert Image icon in Docs that lets you browse to an image file on your hard drive. You click on the file and it’s uploaded to the Cloud and into your Docs repository.

Good, this is clearly what I want. Point, click and …no joy. It won’t upload a PDF.

Still another way: Google Docs proudly claims it now accepts PDFs through the Upload menu. I upload my file and it dutifully appears in my collection of documents—I can see it, we’re almost there. I just have to copy and paste, right? Wrong. Yes, Google Docs accepts PDFs, but it doesn’t let you use them. They’re just stored and rendered (and poorly at that), but nothing more, no combining with other data.

I give up and use my old word processor to create a document like the one you’re reading now and, still hopeful, I copy and paste the content into an email message using the Gmail client in my Premier Google Apps suite. But the graphic doesn’t appear, its place is marked by a blank space. Strange…I know I was able to insert images through my free Gmail account but I can’t see how to do it in the Premiere $$uite.

Hours later, I remember the Labs setting in Gmail:

And I find this:

We’re dealing with yet another instance of the Third Lie of Computing: You Can Do It. (The first two are: It’s Compatible, and Chief, We’ll Be in Golden Master Tomorrow Night!). Indeed, It Can Be Done, but not by normal humans.

Try managing contacts in Gmail—a product launched in 2004—and compare the effort to the Contacts or Address Book facilities available in Microsoft Outlook and the Mac. Or direct the aforementioned normal human to the setting panels in Gmail.

Such experiments point us to a core limitation of Google’s culture: These guys are engineers; they’re very good engineers and have taken large-scale computing to new heights…but they think, emote, and react like engineers. When it comes to relating to non-techie customers…

It also points to a limitation of the Cloud: The pipes just aren’t big enough, yet.

Consider two other Google applications: Picasa and Sketchup. One is a very good photo editing app, the other is a CAD program, a neat 3D modeling tool. Are they implemented as Web apps? No; they run on the desktop. A Web app implementation would need too much bandwidth, too big a pipe between the local machine and the server farm in the Cloud. Desktop apps give better results, faster reactions to user input, because the processor and the data are tightly connected.

Someday, the progress in HTML implementations and better, thicker pipes might move the boundary between local and Cloud applications. But for the time being, conventional desktop “productivity” apps such as word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation programs have an advantage over their Cloud competitors.

Other Cloud services have more than sufficiently matured. Storing and synchronizing data in the Cloud—through Dropbox, SugarSync,, Mozy, Microsoft’s SkyDrive and Apple’s iDisk, Google’s own syncing and storage services—makes perfect sense. Prices range from $0 for 25GB at Microsoft, to $256 for 1TB at Google, and they’re dropping. The proliferation of mobile devices makes these services increasingly valuable, but they’re not necessarily a source of profits as storage and syncing are commoditized.

This got me thinking about product reviews and reviewers again…and testimonials as well.

I go to the oracle and ask for Google Apps testimonials. Google itself claims three million businesses as customers, and provides a suite of testimonials. I dig a little deeper and look for newspaper articles, magazine reviews, and blog entries that have visited the Google Apps user experience a few months after the glowing PR stories had been forgotten. Nothing much.

To the best of my knowledge, and I hope I’ll be proven wrong, none of the big guys, from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, have done any serious on-the-ground, follow-up reporting. Nothing much is written about what real users actually say after months of using Google Apps. I found some rants here and there, a few politely skeptical comments on the NYT Bits blog (“A Long Road Ahead”) and in the Silicon Alley Insider in which we read that “most companies…never seriously considered using Google.”

Nonetheless, the Silicon Alley piece goes on to say that Microsoft should be in “Major Panic Mode”. The generally held view is that Google has aimed its Web Apps at Microsoft’s Golden Goose, the Windows + Office franchise. A glance at Microsoft’s 2010 Annual Report reveals how much of the company’s total operating income is provided by the historic duo: 102.7%! This doesn’t mean that all other MS divisions lose money—some, such as the Server and Tools unit, are quite healthy—but the Online Services business continues to lose billions.
Based on the reported size of Google’s Apps business (no more than $50M/year), on the current limitations of those apps, and on the lack of enthusiastic reports from the real field, I’m beginning to wonder: Is Google fighting the wrong war? Google’s initial idea might have been to become Microsoft 2.0 by usurping the Windows + Office gold mine, but despite the abundant media coverage, the assault isn’t producing much in real business numbers.

In the meantime, while Google has been preoccupied with “killing” Microsoft, Facebook has grown to become the Internet’s most frequented site. With its 550 million users today, Facebook generates about 25% of all pageviews in the US and is well on its way to taking substantial advertising dollars from Google’s own money pump.

Things become interesting when we consider the increased level of cooperation between Facebook and Microsoft, and will become more interesting still as the war shifts to smartphones and to Facebook’s efforts to become the universal connector of people and businesses.