SAN FRANCISCO – Google Inc. (GOOG) is going back to the future by reinventing the spreadsheet as a Web-based application, seeking a simpler on-ramp for consumers to input data into databases, the company said on Monday.
The Web search leader will begin a limited trial on Tuesday of the classic software application defined by its grid of rows and columns and simple calculating capabilities that allow users to enter and organize information in structured form.
The electronic spreadsheet, pioneered in 1978 by VisiCalc, is remembered as the PC era's first "killer application."
The Mountain View, California-based company said its free, Web-based application can be shared with up to ten users simultaneously, improving upon a key limitation of Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Excel, the dominant stand-alone spreadsheet.
"Many people already organize information into spreadsheets," said Jonathan Rochelle, product manager for Google Spreadsheets, as the trial product is known. "Where they are struggling is to share it."
Google is joining a variety of Web start-ups that already offer Web-based spreadsheets, including JotSpot, a company founded by Internet pioneer Joe Kraus, Thinkfree Corp. and Smallthought Systems Inc.'s Dabble DB.
Microsoft has begun offering its own add-on technology for sharing spreadsheets.
For now, the Google Spreadsheet, which can import or export data from Excel's .xls format or the open Comma Separated Value (CSV) format, is aimed at small work teams in social life or small business, not big enterprises, Rochelle said.
The program is designed to help people organize their own information and make it more easily accessible to others via the Web. Data in the spreadsheets are saved automatically with each user action over the Web onto Google computer servers.
Google Spreadsheet relies on technology the company acquired from a small Wall Street software developer it bought last year called 2Web Technologies, which in 2004 introduced tools to convert Microsoft Excel spreadsheets into Web services.
"What is missing is the ability to share data more easily," Rochelle said.
Users can sort data and take advantage of 200 functions and common spreadsheet formulas for doing basic calculations of numerical data. Google is working on improving printing, charts, filtering and "drag and drop" features, he said.
Rochelle said his company would be studying how much demand there is for Google Spreadsheet to work with Google Base, an online database service that allows Google users to post various types of information online.
"Databases in themselves are really hard to program," said Charlene Li, an Internet analyst with Forrester Research. "What people use spreadsheets for is low-end databases," she said.
Google Base is viewed by analysts as a stepping stone into the classified advertising or e-commerce markets, by helping users feature relevant information on Google's main search index, the Froogle shopping site and Google Local search.
Google Spreadsheet is one of a string of user productivity applications that Google has been testing, including the Writely word processing application it acquired earlier this year and its internally developed Google Calendar.
Users interested in experimenting with the application can go to Google Labs (http://labs.google.com/) to sign up on Tuesday.
An undisclosed number of users can join the initial trial phase on a first-come, first-served basis, it said.