Google is testing a new plug-in for Microsoft Office that lets users share and edit docs collaboratively in the cloud.

In March 2009 Google acquired DocVerse, and the new plug-in, called Google Cloud Connect, incorporates the technology it purchased. When installed, the free plug-in sets up a toolbar in Word, Excel or PowerPoint for Office 2003, 2007 and 2010.

Productivity's Future 'In the Cloud'

An Office document can be edited by desktop-based Office apps, then uploaded to the author's account in the cloud-based Google Docs. Changes are not made directly online, but within a user's Office apps and then synced between users online. Office 2010 offers its own collaboration, but Google Connect gives that capability to earlier releases of the popular productivity suite.

Cloud Connect tracks all changes, allows users to go back to previous versions, and shows an alert if more than one user is revising the same portion of a given document. The alert allows one of the edits to be chosen above others. Users without Office, such as those on mobile devices, can still view documents, although editing is not enabled.

A potentially big advantage of the plug-in approach is that, instead of importing and exporting Office docs back and forth with Google Docs, which can result in formatting or other issues, the plug-in enables the users to stay within Office.

When Google acquired DocVerse, Group Product Manager Jonathan Rochelle wrote on the Office Google Enterprise Blog that "the future of productivity applications is in the cloud." He noted that "many people are still accustomed to desktop software," so his company was making it easier to "interoperate with desktop applications like Microsoft Office."

'Forced To Make a Choice'

DocVerse founders Shan Sinha and Alex DeNeui are ex-Microsofters. They noted on their blog that "unfortunately," users had been "forced to make a choice between the two worlds of Microsoft Office or Google Docs & Apps." What was "even worse," they wrote, was that people who use both sometimes find their inter-compatibility lacking. Google's purchase of their company, they said, "represents a first step to solve these problems."

A key question is how this will impact the ongoing, and growing, Microsoft-Google competition for productivity applications on the web. Among other things, Google Cloud Connect means Office can retain its position as king of the desktop without a user having to forego Google's cloud.

Additionally, if the plug-in becomes popular, it could undercut Microsoft's attempts to take the wind out of Google's cloud-based apps. Users could pick the cloud environment with which they are most comfortable, whether or not they stick with Office.

As Sinha told a Seattle newspaper recently, "Google's really trying to establish Google Apps as a collaboration platform, no matter what tools they use." Cloud Connect also supports Google's recent sales pitch, which is that businesses don't need to upgrade all their employees to the newest Office in order to get collaboration.