Disclosure: I didn't get an early invitation, so this is not a first-hand review of Google Wave. But from what I know now, I don't want an invitation anymore. It looks like too much of a productivity suck. But I do use Google Spreadsheet all the time. It is the de facto real-time, online, distributed collaboration tool for serious GTD business. It is the best tool for an agile, networked business.

But it could be way, way better. Excel is still the best spreadsheet; it has just fallen behind on collaboration (and collaboration is a show-stopper). But Microsoft could catch up there, and a lot of really sharp startups are gunning for the same space.

A Short History of the Programmer-less App Mirage

Since about, oh, maybe the days of punch cards, ventures have proclaimed some variation on this pitch: no need for programmers; ordinary folk can create really useful apps!

Fourth generation, Fifth generation! Far too many acronyms and buzzwords and brilliance and capital have been sacrificed on this altar.

On the other hand, ordinary folk create real apps on spreadsheets all day long. Millions of people do it. Businesses run on them, to the horror of IT folk. Banks and VCs burn billions of dollars based on crazy assumptions in those spreadsheets. Mr. Assumption pleads guilty. Mr. Spreadsheet says, "I was only following orders!"

Real-Time Spreadsheets? That Is So 1980s, Dude!

Yes, traders were doing real-time spreadsheets using Excel in the late 1980s, and by the mid-1990s (as in, 15 years ago) they were totally mainstream in trading rooms. Sorry if that is news to folks who think "real time" is new.

But It Could Be a Lot More

Excel has one problem: version control. That's it. Collaboration is a fancy word, but the simple problem before we had online spreadsheets was version control. You either endured chaos and frazzled nerves or you put in the kind of IT process management rules that the ordinary GTD folks were fleeing from by using a spreadsheet rather than a custom system.

Online spreadsheets that anyone can edit concurrently solved the version control problem. Problem solved! Done, finished. Can we move on now?

I wish Google would focus on the things that would now make its Spreadsheet an awesome business tool. Here are the top four items on my wish list:

1. Offline sync that does not get in the way and is totally seamless.
I gave up on Gears because it seemed to do more harm than good. I know that it is a tough engineering challenge, but I know that Google has some pretty smart people (Wave alone has 60 engineers). Offline sync is essential for serious spreadsheet use. Please don't tell serious business users that they can get Wi-Fi anywhere. Or that they will be able to very soon. Or that waiting for the bandwidth to catch up with their actions is okay.

2. The same level of sophistication in features that Excel has.
I am not a power Excel user, but even I hit limits on Google Spreadsheet. The spreadsheet jockeys who create those powerful (and dangerous) models view Google's app as a toy.

#1 and 2 are linked. You cannot have that level of sophistication without using local CPU capacity.

3. Better hooks to real databases.
Spreadsheets are database-like, but don't try anything serious that a RBMS does with its eyes closed. Add in linked data and XML assets.

4. APIs and other tools to enable an eco-system of apps that do forms and process management.
In a business, something happens when someone signs off on something. That gets tracked somewhere, as in a spreadsheet. Enable that eco-system to grow.

If Google won't seize this challenge, Microsoft will. Excel may be Microsoft's best product ever, and it understands business needs.

Wave looks like the kind of over-engineered, overly complex, promise-the-moon-at-some-far-off-date project that has gotten Microsoft in such deep trouble so often. Sure, Wave will be evaluated by a lot of big companies. Meetings will be convened to discuss Wave. Wave Committees might even be formed. Ho and hum! This is not the Google we admire. This is the Google that dreams of being Microsoft and then wakes up and finds that it is Microsoft, and it is a nightmare.

Actually, it looks like Google cannot decide whether it is trying to be Twitter ("Look at me! I'm hip, young and hot") or Microsoft ("It may not be that exciting, son, but it works, and that's what matters"). Self-conscious attempts to be hip almost always fail.

Where Google has historically scored well is in providing tools that you can be productive with immediately and that gradually grow in competence, never requiring a big decision. Millions of folks have a business or non-profit to run and need Google to build on the early promise of Google Spreadsheet.

If it doesn't, Microsoft will make the online version of Excel work as easily as Google Spreadsheet.