Steve Ballmer For years, Microsoft had no competition when it came to office productivity suites. The vast majority of people and businesses didn't give the matter any thought: they just chose Microsoft Office. But that's starting to change.

Office is still dominant, but more businesses are getting used to the idea of their apps and data living in the cloud, and the Google Docs web-based office suite is starting to gain traction. And not just among small businesses - the big boys and girls are showing an interest too.

Google claims in its official blog that more than 1.75 million businesses, schools and other organisations, including Motorola, now use Google Docs. The company also claims that 3,000 organisations sign up for Google Docs every day.

In the education world, the company says, Google Docs has made significant inroads. It claims that more than five million students at thousands of universities in more than 145 countries are now using Google Docs, a 400% increase over last year.

As a way to drive home the point that Google Docs is ready for businesses, Google is renting billboard space in Boston, Chicago, New York and San Francisco to explain why enterprises should use the suite.

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Client versus web

Microsoft isn't sitting still, of course. The next version of Office, Microsoft Office 2010, will include web-based access to popular applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, as a way to compete with Google Docs. Those web-based versions, though, are not likely to be as robust as Google Apps. Google, for its part, has extended Google Docs to the desktop, adding some client features. And that, in turn, is not as robust as the client version of Microsoft Office.

But over the next few years, you can expect Google Docs and Microsoft Office to resemble each other more and more. Microsoft Office will gain cloud-based storage and other web-based features, and Google Docs will include more powerful client-based components. Still, it's likely that Microsoft Office will for the foreseeable future be primarily client-based, and Google Docs primarily web-based.

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A matter of trust

Where does that leave small businesses, medium-size businesses and large enterprises? Which should they use: Google Docs or Microsoft Office? Ultimately, it will come down to trust, and that's not just trust in a particular company, but trust in the company's particular technology approach, be it cloud- or client-based.

The worldwide outage of Gmail for 100 minutes earlier this month should give pause to those considering moving full time to Google Docs. The Gmail outage had Microsoft laughing all the way to the bank.

Imagine if you ran a company and that outage brought down all of the word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software in your business. That could be disastrous.

For now, at least, client-based suites are more trustworthy than web-based ones. In addition, Microsoft has years of experience deploying and supporting Office, including automated deployment and management tools. Those are two good reasons to go with Microsoft.

Of course, the decision also depends on price, and on a company's size and requirements. If I were starting a small business today, for example, I would go with Google Docs. Not only is licensing less expensive than it is with Microsoft Office, but with Google Docs you can operate a business without an infrastructure, or even an IT staff. All you need is web access. So the cost savings go well beyond licensing fees and would overshadow occasional outages.

Large enterprises, with their large investments in infrastructure, technology, expertise and staff, will still want to go with the tried and true. That's for today, though. If the cloud becomes more reliable and Google develops enterprise-level support, the decision could become much tougher.