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Google Docs Use: Just a Blip

Josh Catone

A few weeks ago on this blog we talked about why Microsoft might not need to fear Google Docs quite yet. Despite a lot of attention paid among the early adopter press (read: web 2.0 tracking blogs like this one), not many people actually use Google Docs. The free, desktop Microsoft Office competitor OpenOffice.org may have almost 4 times as many users as Google’s suite of web-based tools.

New numbers from Compete suggest that things are even worse than they appear for Google’s hopes of competing with Microsoft in the office. Though Compete reports that the combined number of users for Google’s Docs and Spreadsheets is 4.4 million — peanuts compared to Microsoft’s Office install base and Google’s total traffic, but still a healthy number — more than half of those visitors don’t get past the landing page. 58% of unique visitors to Google Docs and Spreadsheets in September 2008 never actually touched the applications themselves.

Even more disappointing for Google, according to Compete the time spent on site is miserable. One would expect that average time per user would be fairly high for a word processing application — after all, college students spend hours in front of Microsoft Word typing up papers each week. Compete found that visitors to Google Docs and Spreadsheets apps are only spending about 5 minutes per month on the site, and only visiting about 3 days out of each month.

That suggests to us that Google’s tools might be used more for viewing and reading purposes — a way to send documents and be sure they will be readable when they arrive — rather than actual editing and writing. If that’s the case, that’s bad news for Google. Microsoft is preparing to launch their own free web-based Office tools to complement their desktop software. If people are really only using Google Docs as a document viewer and still using Microsoft Office for serious word processing, they may just switch to Microsoft’s online tools for convenience purposes to share and do light editing of documents.

However, we’ve also noted that Google has been rapidly developing its web office offerings and they’re getting better at a quick pace. As Google’s tools become more feature rich, Microsoft may find itself in competition with Google based more completely on the merits of each company’s web office applications. Further, Google does appear to be making a push to get more mainstream users using Docs and Spreadsheets. They just added a Docs gadget to Gmail Labs, and they also booted StarOffice, a desktop office software suite based on OpenOffice.org, from their Google Pack software bundle, prompting us to wonder if the company is planning to replace it with desktop wrappers for Google Docs and Spreadsheets, perhaps linked to their Chrome browser.

If and when all that happens, things will definitely get more interesting. For now, though, Google has a huge uphill battle to climb.