I’ll admit the title is a little sensationalistic, but I have yet to see any contrarian view-point on the story of Google acquiring Writely. All the stories I’ve read so far seem to tout Google Office and how they are one step closer to getting an office-for-the-web to defeat Microsoft.
When I first read the story, I was surprised that Google was really buying a company like Writely. Now I am not trying to bash Writely at all here – In fact, I’ve been a beta-tester of Writely since its launch and I think Writely is a good tool. I even recently ran a little project at work to see if we could use Writely as a collaboration tool. And so my thoughts on this matter as more about Google than Writely. Writely is a neat idea but where’s the real value here? If Google just wanted a WSYIWIG web-editor, they didn’t have to buy a company. They could have used one of the many open-source products out there like TinyMCE, FCKeditor and countless others that essentially do what Writely does at its core. Writely does add on the storage, versioning and other features on top of the WYSIWYG editors but is that worth buying the whole company?
Every time a large company buys a small company, I almost always flashback to a meeting I had in July 2000 with Paul Butterworth, who was then the CTO of Sun’s tools division. Paul had joined Sun as part of Sun’s acquisition of Forte Software. Paul Butterworth was the founder of Forte Software and spent a few months at Sun before moving on and starting AmberPoint, which is doing some really cool things. Not sure how many remember Forte Software, but Forte was the maker of a 4GL programming language called TOOL with a pretty cool n-tier architecture. Instead of using anything that Forte had, Sun decided to buy NetBeans and just use the name Forte for its tools. What a joke – billions of shareholder dollars wasted but that’s history now.
Any rate, a group of us got to spend an afternoon with Paul as part of a client visit. As we were quizzing him on why Sun bought Forte, he said something that’s still with me and rings true in most acquisitions. He theorized that large companies are always amazed at all the innovation coming from small companies and so they buy these small companies in hopes of bringing the small company magic into the larger company – and that almost never works as the small companies were innovative because they weren’t constrained by all the big company process, policies and red-tape. The minute the small company joins the large company, innovation stops as people that could have been creative and really stretched were now constrained by all the big company bureaucracy.
When I think about Google’s acquisition of Writely, I am reminded of that story. Google has some brilliant people that can take something like TinyMCE, FCKeditor or write something like that and ‘network-enable’ the whole idea of a web editor. Why would you buy Writely? Is it just to get the developers? Is Google getting too big that all the innovation that we expected from Google is just not materializing? Obviously I have no idea why Google purchased Writely and there may be something really there that I’m missing. What do you think? Is Google too big to be nimble and innovative like it was in the past? Am I reading too much into this Writely thing?