A very welcome news from TechCrunch. For years, we’ve been hearing that the future of productivity is in the cloud. But while visions of real-time collaboration leave technophiles like me starry-eyed, it’s a prospect that means one thing to millions of people: leaving the familiar turf of Microsoft Office 2003 or 2007 so that they can learn their way around yet another application, not to mention some pricey upgrades. But Google wants to let you have it both ways.

Today, Google is launching a new plugin for Microsoft Office called Cloud Connect, which will tie Google Docs directly into the ubiquitous productivity suite, free of charge. Editing a document in Word? It’ll automatically sync to your Google Docs account each time you hit ‘Save’. Want to share a preview of your document without worrying about what file format your coworkers can open? Just send them a link to the Google Docs file. The plugin supports Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel, and it’s a big deal for Google’s strategy with Docs. The new product is going live for Apps for Business customers today as part of a preview program; everyone else will get it soon. Update: Google says that the demand was so high that it can’t accept any more volunteers, but you can sign up to receive a notification when it’s available.

Now, Microsoft is integrating online collaboration with its newest version of Office, but Google is doing them one better: this will work on Office 2003, 2007, and 2010, and there’s no fiddling with SharePoint required, either. Google also points out that Microsoft’s version doesn’t offer Excel support yet.

The new plugin is a result of Google’s acquisition of DocVerse back in March (note that it only took Google around eight months to get this out the door — obviously a lot of people want it). Installing the plugin should be fairly painless; the download takes around thirty seconds, and the installation process doesn’t take much longer.

Once you’ve installed it, you’ll notice a new ribbon toward the top of the Office UI, which gives you a Google Docs link for the document you’re currently working on, as well as a notification to let you know when it’s been synced with Google’s servers. Documents being edited locally save to your Google Docs account whenever you hit the ‘Save’ button, but unlike the normal Google Docs web editor, changes aren’t saved as you type them. Google Docs product manager Jonathan Rochelle says this is done because of user expectations — Office has always required that you hit the Save button to save (safety recovery versions notwithstanding) so it makes sense to leave it this way.

Multiple people can edit the same document and have their changes synced with each save (hooray for the cloud). But because these changes aren’t reflected in real-time, there’s the potential for conflicts — I could edit a PowerPoint slide to say one thing, and my coworker could put something else on the same slide. Google deals with these conflicts by presenting users with an alert prompting them to choose which version they’d like to save; if they want to go back and switch again later, they can using the document’s version history.

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