Google has housed its productivity apps under the Google Drive label since launching it in 2012, but no longer. The search giant on Wednesday unbundled new Docs and Sheets apps—for text documents and spreadsheets, respectively—and will shortly also release Slides, a PowerPoint rival, into the wild as well.
It's not entirely clear why Google is backing away from its monolithic Drive approach, although it's apparently fairly serious about nudging users into the new standalone apps:
If you don’t have time now, over the next few days you’ll be prompted to download the apps when you go to edit or create a document or spreadsheet in your Drive app.
Google, however, also made clear that Drive isn't going away, so the strategic direction here is a bit murky. Some have speculated that Google wanted to unlimber its apps to compete more directly with Microsoft Office (now available for the iPad as well as on Windows devices) and Apple's own iWork productivity suite—primarily Pages for documents, Numbers for spreadsheets and Keynote for slides.
So let's have a quick look at how Google Docs and Google Sheets stack up against their rivals.
Google vs. Microsoft vs. Apple
- Price: Docs and Sheets are free (presumably, Slides will be as well). So are Apple's offerings—at least to buyers of new iDevices. Others pay $10 for Pages, Numbers and Keynote—each—so that's $30 for all three. Office for the iPad, meanwhile, is technically free, although the app limits you to read-only document access until you pony up for an Office 365 subscription, which will set you back $70 a year. (You can use the more limited Office Mobile for free on Android and iOS so long as it's for personal use.) Winner: Google, with Apple a close runner-up
- Offline use: Google launched its Docs and Sheets apps with a new capability Drive didn't offer—the ability to create and work on documents offline. Office for iPad allows similar access; so do the Apple productivity apps. Winner: a three-way tie
- Device availability: Google's apps run on all Android and iOS devices, but aren't available for Windows Phone devices. Pages, Numbers and Keynote run on all iOS devices, but not Android or Windows Phone. As for Office—well, let's just say that in classic Microsoft fashion, you're stuck with a hodgepodge of different options, including full-fledged Microsoft Office for Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets; Office for iPad for, well, the iPad; nothing for Android tablets and the stripped-down Office Mobile for smartphone use (iOS, Android and Windows Phone). Winner: Google
- Features: This gets messy fast. Docs and Sheets are relatively full-featured on Android devices, but on iOS they're considerably pared down—for instance, offering no support for images, tables or hyperlinks. Apple's iWork suite, meanwhile, generally wins high praise for its plethora of formatting options and tools such as interactive charts. Reviewers have generally praised Office for iPad (with the caveat that it's mainly for existing Office 365 subscribers), although they have been less kind to Office Mobile; full-fledged Office on Windows 8/RT, meanwhile, has no real commercial competition. Winner: Apple, with Microsoft a close runner-up
The Great Unbundling?
It's hard not to notice a parallel between Google's move toward standalone productivity apps and hinted changes at its Google+ social network. Following the abrupt departure of Google+ chief Vic Gundotra earlier this week, rumors have swirled that the company may be unwinding its social tentacles from the apps and services it has enwrapped over the past year or so.
Perhaps there's a larger unbundling trend afoot at the Plex.
Image by Flickr user Adam Hyde, CC 2.0