Will Microsoft unleash its secret weapon against Google Docs?

Microsoft has a little-known and little-used piece of free software that can help it in its battle against Google, especially against Google Docs, called Windows Live Sync. Inexplicably, Microsoft rarely publicizes it, and doesn't embed it directly into Microsoft Office. Will Microsoft ever unleash this secret weapon?

Windows Live Sync does an excellent job of synchronizing files and folders among multiple computers, including both PCs and Macs. In the beta of its latest version, it also backs up those files and folders to Microsoft's free cloud storage service, Windows SkyDrive, which offers 2GB of free storage. It does synchronization automatically in the background. In addition, it also lets you take remote control of another of your Windows computers via an Internet connection. It's the best part of the Windows Live Essentials suite of free software. For a review, see Hands on: Microsoft's Windows Live Essentials rides a new wave.

Using Windows Live Sync, you get access to your most important files wherever you are. If it's one of your own PCs, the files are right there, waiting for you, even if you made changes to them at another computer. If you're at someone else's computer, they're waiting for you on Windows Live SkyDrive.

Given that, you would think that Windows Live Sync would be a natural addition to both the client-based and Web-based versions of Microsoft Office, and address Office's biggest shortcoming compared to Google Docs. At the moment, there's no automatic synchronization between the Web-based version of Office and the client version of Office. Work on a file on your local PC, and it stays there unless you remember to save it to the cloud. Work on a file on the Web-based version of Office, and it stays in the cloud, unless you remember to get it to a local PC.

That means it's exceptionally confusing when switching between the Web-based and client versions of Office. If you use both versions of the software, it's very easy to accidentally work on an old version of a file, or overwrite a new version of a file with an old version. Because of that, very few people will likely use both versions in concert. And that gives Google Docs a big opening, when Google finally gets the offline version of the software working in its newest iteration. In a mobile world, where people work not just on multiple computers in multiple places, but also use tablets, netbooks, and smartphones for work, it's important that they have access to a single file that's up to date everywhere. Google will soon give them that. Microsoft, at the moment, doesn't.

Imagine if Windows Live Sync were built into Office, though. Whenever you worked on an Office file --- no matter where you were, and on what device --- it would automatically be updated everywhere. You wouldn't have to remember where and when you saved the last version of a file; it would always be there waiting for you.

That would give Microsoft a big leg up on Google. Google Docs is fine as a Web-based application, but it's not nearly as powerful as the client version of Office. But it's better than Office for providing access to the latest version of your files.

With Windows Live Sync integrated into Office, Microsoft could offer people the best of both worlds --- the best client-based software, along with online-offline access to documents and synchronization.

Why hasn't that happened yet? The group responsible for Windows Live Sync is separate from the group responsible for Microsoft Office. Because of that, the different pieces of software are on different development and revision cycles. It's a perfect example of how organizational structure stands in the way of creating top-notch products.

If Microsoft is ever going to compete well in a fight against Google --- and against Apple --- it will need to rethink that kind of organizational structure. Maybe then it can release the best software and services possible, no matter where they are developed in the organization.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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