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Google is set to take Microsoft head on with the introduction of a free online spreadsheet that allows users will be able to create, store and share spreadsheets, widely used for household and business accounting.

 “We’re allowing people to organise their own information and make it accessible to people they want to share it with,” said Jonathan Rochelle, product manager for Google Spreadsheets.

The product follows Googles acquisition in March of the maker of Writely, a free online word processing service that challenges Microsoft’s dominant Word. By adding spreadsheets to its offerings, Google is now also challenging Microsoft’s popular Excel software.

Google appears to be going down a checklist of products included in Microsoft’s Office, a bundle of software that retails for around $250 and is installed on most personal computers. However, Google versions are free, without an installation, potentially undermining one of Microsoft’s most lucrative businesses.

Both companies are increasingly butting heads with new products as they compete for more users. What was once a clear line between the technology titans — Internet and desktop software — is quickly blurring due to innovation, promising more major battles. To use Google’s spreadsheets, users must sign in through an online Google account. Any data will be stored on Google’s servers, and not on the user’s computer.

By placing the spreadsheets online, Google is touting its service as allowing easy sharing. Users can invite up to 10 others with Google accounts to view and enter data that is updated in real time. Instant messaging is integrated into the service so users can communicate while collaborating.

Google is offering spreadsheets as a limited test within its labs area. The company will start accepting requests to join the test at 6 a.m. today and will eventually reply to applicants with invitations on a first-come, first-served basis. Rochelle acknowledged that the spreadsheets lack key components such as charting that are available on competing services. He said more features will be added, based on user feedback.

In a statement, Alan Yates, a general manager for Microsoft who helps oversee business software, underscored his company’s head start in spreadsheets and said that Google’s version, by comparison, is “like watching a time machine from 10 years ago.”  Chris Le Tocq, an analyst for Guernsey Research, said having Google’s service online — plus its lack of polish — gives it only a limited appeal. Companies in particular will be nervous about temporarily losing access to their data if Internet access crashes, he said.

“If I was an enterprise, I would go nowhere near this,” Le Tocq said. “If I was a small-business person, I would also be extremely wary.”  He continued: “The only people who should consider this would be people on a tight budget — a student, or nonprofit or an educational institution.”

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