Google mulls tighter link between Gmail and Docs

Brains are working overtime at Google to explore ways of further integrating its e-mail and instant messaging services with its hosted productivity applications.

The intention is to boost the group collaboration capabilities of the Docs & Spreadsheets hosted suite of office productivity applications. Although the suite's word processor, spreadsheet program and upcoming presentations application lack the breadth of features in Word, Excel and PowerPoint, Google believes they offer users benefits over their Microsoft Office counterparts. Chief among the benefits, Google says, is the ability for workgroups to collaborate, because Docs & Spreadsheets files are hosted by Google and designed for multiple users to view and edit them. Word, Excel and PowerPoint, on the other hand, are desktop PC applications, which makes multiuser collaboration harder, Google argues.

A basic level of integration exists between Docs & Spreadsheets and the Gmail Web mail and Talk IM services. For example, users can open attached files directly from Gmail and launch them in Docs & Spreadsheets, without having to download them. They can also call up their Gmail contacts list from within Docs & Spreadsheets and e-mail a file from the suite's interface.

However, Google sees this as just the beginning. The company bets that hosted applications represent the future of software. "I feel like we've poked one hole in the wall between Gmail and Docs and I want us to poke about 10 holes," said Sam Schillace, engineering director of Docs & Spreadsheets. "Here at Google, as heavy users of the Docs & Spreadsheets programs, we're just now getting to the point where we can see the problem clearly enough to take the next step."

For example, it would be good to make the ability to generate instant messages and e-mails from within documents more granular, he said. It would be convenient if a user could call up an instant message or e-mail form that automatically captures the portion of the document the user just commented on, he said. "There are all these little places in which you want to do a little bit of collaboration around some fragment of the document," Schillace said.

Making the boundary between Gmail and Docs & Spreadsheets more porous is a natural evolution for Writely, as the word processing application was known when Google acquired its creator Upstartle last year. "Writely is somewhere between an e-mail program and a word processor. It's not really either. It's almost like a new flavor of e-mail in some ways," he said.

Told of Google's plans, Jay Gilmore, principal at SmashingRed Web & Marketing in Nova Scotia, Canada, said deeper integration would be helpful for collaborating with external copywriters. However, as long as Google is tinkering with Gmail, it should improve Gmail's contact management capabilities, as well as enhance Google Calendar, he said.

"The calendar and contact manager in Google Apps are pathetic," said Gilmore, who signed up in February for Google Apps, the broader communications and collaboration suite which includes Docs & Spreadsheets, Gmail, Calendar and other products.

Beyond the Gmail and Talk integration plans, Google also sees opportunities for integrating Docs & Spreadsheets with other Google products, such as the Picasa photo management application, Schillace said. "That's going to be a general trend: all the apps are going to start tying together more and more, in ways that make sense," he said.

It would also make sense at some point to open up APIs for the word processing program, as was done for the spreadsheet application, he said. From the beginning, Writely users have requested the ability to integrate it with other applications, like CRM systems, or build a program around it, in mashup fashion, he said.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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