GMail Contextual Gadgets Are Cool, But Apps Script Could Be Huge

With Google in conference mode, that means one major thing, lots of product announcements. Several blogs have reported on the email contextual gadgets for Google Apps. Third party developers can now built GMail contextual gadgets and have them available in the Google Apps Marketplace. In the announcement, they listed several applications that would be available immediately, AwayFind, Kwaga, Gist, Pixetell, Smartsheet, Xobni, Rapportive, Manymoon, Newmind Group, and BillFLO. This is definitely an interesting list of applications, but this is only available to Google Apps customers at this time. I am assuming that these applications will eventually be available for all GMail users, but most people will need to wait. More importantly, this announcement continues the push towards enterprise adoption of Google Apps. However, this was not the biggest announcement of the day, regardless of how much coverage it is getting.

Somehow the announcement of Google Apps Script improvements got generally ignored.If you do not remember what Google App Script is, it is the Visual Basic for Applications language for Google Apps. So, if you look at the details of what has changed in Google Apps Script, and you remember why Microsoft Office became the dominant player in office suites, you should be amazed that people are not talking about this more. Here are the highlights taken from the Google Enterprise blog post:

  • Data interoperability through JDBC (Java Database Connectivity): Now Google Apps Script can connect to any MySQL database, including business databases running on servers behind firewalls.
  • Custom user interfaces for scripts: Google Apps Premier Edition users can now script graphical interface elements and menus. For example, a company could power an internal application for purchasing office supplies. Users could shop via a customized menu interface, and the script could email the employee’s selections to their manager for purchasing approval before routing the order to fulfillment team.
  • Standalone invocation of scripts: It’s now possible to call a script from any website, so you’re able to build web pages where users can submit entries that will be collected in a Google spreadsheet.
  • More integrations with other Google properties: New integrations with Google Docs and Google Maps add the ability to create and modify files in the Google Documents List and retrieve directions from Google Maps.

So, you can connect to MySQL and build a custom user interface if you have the Premier Edition. There is also more integration with Google Docs. Does anyone remember how many applications were written using VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) and Microsoft Access? What Google is trying to do is take that model and put it on the web. The reason is simple, there are hundreds of millions of  people still looking for ways to automate tasks in a spreadsheet without involving the programming department. Many of those small departmental applications written in Access have not been ported to the web because of the amount of programming involved. Google just tried to remove that barrier.

In addition to the major additions targeted at corporate customers, they threw everyone else a Google Docs treat. You can call a script from any website. So, you can create your own polls using the spreadsheets and embed it in a blog post or widget. This does two things without making it incredibly obvious. First, they allow people to use Apps Script on their own websites and slowly push their employer to start using it. This is how many things gain adoption in the workplace. Second, they have start pushing their own Apps Script as a framework for the web. This is not a small task as other scripting languages are firmly entrenched, but those languages do not have the simple hooks into an office suite. So, with other scripting languages, it is hard to save data without server side programming like Java or PHP. With AppsScript, you can write some simple script and save the data to a spreadsheet. Yes, Google is trying to create VBA for the web application, and it is in a language that many people already know, JavaScript.

Simple programming has always been the holy grail of software development, especially when talking about small departmental applications in the enterprise. Will typical business people be able to create great applications with Apps Script? I doubt that, but we could easily see many applications created that serve a specific purpose, quickly automating various tasks for spreadsheets and other office suite documents. If this simplicity can be translated to the web as well, we could see some interesting developments. Because Apps Script is really just JavaScript, there could be a huge library of scripts that automate various tasks. As an example, who will be first to release a script using Apps Script and Google spreadsheets that is a simple polling widget that you can easily embed on your blog? Another question should be on your mind as well, can Microsoft quickly answer with their new online offerings?

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