It must be a busy time at Google Docs. As companies look to shrink their budgets, free-to-inexpensive software like Docs becomes a lot more tempting. And the search giant keeps rolling out cool features for all its applications, most recently offline support for Gmail. Meanwhile, the other big tech players are eyeing this market, with Microsoft and Apple both announcing online collaborative versions of their office software in the last few months.

That’s why I was excited to hop on the phone with Jonathan Rochelle, product manager of Google Docs, and hear his thoughts on what 2009 holds for Google’s web apps. During our brief interview, he talked about the economy’s impact on Docs, the Docs business model (or lack thereof), and when Docs will lose that pesky beta testing label.

VB: Can you talk about some of the broader trends you see for Google Docs, and for Google’s web apps in general?

JR: You’re going to see a lot of growth with integration. We’re seeing a lot of that already — the launch of Gmail Labs opened up a more visible version of simple integration in terms of cloud apps. Also, it’s not just integration across Google Apps, but across all apps in the cloud. That’s an advantage not just to users but to companies. [Integration] was one of the areas that was most painful about local applications.

We’ll also see a lot of growth in the social aspects of these apps, but that’s so obvious it almost doesn’t need to be said.

VB: Are you seeing any change in the trepidation companies have about adopting cloud-based applications?

JR: There is reduced trepidation. It’s almost like the reverse is happening in terms of [people becoming] more fearful of existing platforms. Because the new platforms are more open, almost by necessity they’re accessible and they’re potentially safer. The personal example is easy: “I don’t want to trust my laptop, I want to be as far from dependent on my laptop as possible in terms of when I lose it.” That very easily translates, whether it’s a two-person business or a small-to-large enterprise. That transition is happening.

VB: Both Microsoft and Apple have announced office software with online collaboration. Does the increasing competition change the way you position Google Docs?

JR: I don’t think it necessarily changes. We don’t drive our offerings on competition. Our users are driving them. I think it’d be bad if we were the only one [with apps in the cloud.]

VB: A lot of my friends give me a hard time for using Google Docs to write, because it doesn’t have as many features as a desktop word processor. Do you think that’s a fair criticism?

JR: I think it is fair to say it’s not as strong as a desktop word processor as far as depth of features. In terms of number of features, I think you will see improvements there. Our goal is not to bloat the app, not to make it so rich that it’s hard to use. Our aim is to hit most people, not to hit people who need something like perfect typeface or pagination. It’s not unfair to say we have less features than a desktop processor, but the product advantages just outweigh that. If you really want to do something like print a newspaper, then certainly you’re going to use something that’s very specific.

VB: An idea that gets repeated frequently is that cloud applications like Google’s become more attractive when companies are facing economic pressure. Have you seen increased adoption since the financial crisis began?

JR: It’s hard to say, because our adoption rate is very strong, but we haven’t necessarily been able to connect it to the economy. Certainly, there are strong indications anecdotally, not the least of which is the interest in very inexpensive computers [i.e., netbooks that rely more heavily on web apps than desktop software]. For $300, you can actually get a pretty darn good computer that does pretty much everything you want to do.

I hear more people are discovering our products more now, but again, that’s more anecdotal than data-driven.

VB: How have people surprised you in their use of Google Docs?

JR: With some users, it replaces their desktop editor for creation and sharing of docs, because it ends up being a better experience for creating documents.

At one point I searched for spreadsheet art, which is something individuals have done before, but now that they’re doing it collaboratively in the cloud it becomes more interesting. Users do the same thing with regard to games or even in-office lotteries or pools, which is something that you just wouldn’t necessarily expect as well.

Have you tried out Forms?

VB: No.

JR: That’s also one of those wow moments. You can quickly send out a form send to a whole host of people and the responses go directly into a spreadsheet. It’s very clearly replacing what people used to do, which was basically e-mailing questions out and getting the responses manually. It’s nice to see a lot of gamers using Docs and Spreadsheets for collecting information on their game communities. There’s also personal tracking, like one or two other people tracking a diet.

I had a funny experience — someone I was training with, I started working out without him, but I kept updating the doc and it kept showing up in his list. One day I opened it and he’d left a big motivational message. I finally had one of those wow moments myself.

VB: Google Docs is only monetized through the Google Apps package of business software, right?

JR: Yes, it’s just Google Apps right now. It’s great for us to have any monetization, because we saw this almost as a public service. Now that we’re finding that people want to pay for a product like this, Apps is a huge success for us.

VB: We hear a lot about Google tightening its belt, refocusing on core products and the bottom line. Has that affected your team?

JR: Generally, I don’t think we’re in that mode yet. It’s not impossible that we would be. As a product manager [at Google, compared to my role at other companies], it’s a change for me to not worry about revenue. There’s pressure, but its more towards making users happy.

VB: And finally, when are you guys going to get rid of the beta label?

JR: I don’t really have timing for you. It’s funny, because we don’t view it internally as a beta product. Mentally, we give it everything we’ve got, its not something where we can just throw risky things out there. But yes, we’ll focus on coming up with very clear criteria for what we’re going to do and what it means to take that label off.

[Note: Google PR wants me to point out that Google Apps is not in beta, even though some of its component products are, such as Gmail and Google Docs.]

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