The history of high tech is chockablock with examples of free software apps that utterly destroyed their paid counterparts. Users used to pay for web browsers, for instance. Same thing with personal finance trackers like Quicken and Microsoft Money.

The replacement process is typically hastened when the company behind the free product has deep pockets and throws money at the market to win a greater share, like when Microsoft used Internet Explorer to basically kill Netscape, which once had an 80% market share.

So, you'd think that Google Docs--a free product backed by a company as big and powerful as "Alphabet"--would have already destroyed the market share for Microsoft Word, especially considering that Word looks and feels as if it were programmed two decades ago.

But you'd think wrong, though, because Word is easily holding its own against Google Docs. Microsoft hasn't even been forced to drop its prices to compete with "free." The failure of Google Docs to dent Word's share must drive the Google team absolutely nuts.

What gives?

Perhaps you've heard the saying "that's not a bug, it's a feature!" It started as an inside joke among programmers but has since come to be a popular way to reframe something negative as something positive.

Well, while it's not as well known, there's a flip side to that notion: a feature that's actually a bug. And that's the case with Google Docs. Its most highly touted feature and design center--the ability for multiple people to work on a single document simultaneously--is a serious design flaw.

Multiple people "collaborating" on the same document sounds like a good idea--just like people "collaborating" inside open plan offices sounds like a good idea. But it's not. It's a very dumb idea, for two reasons:

First, group writing--whether conducted in a conference room or online--always results in verbal mush. A huge part of what makes a document readable and comprehendible is a single vision of how the ideas are to be communicated. Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Second, when multiple people are working on the same document, the focus changes from communicating with the (future) reader and instead to communicating with the other writers and editors.

Third, and most important, writing is, or rather should be, a private activity where work-in-progress is best held close to the chest. As a journalist quoted in Slate recently said:

"When you're writing, your biggest fear is that you're writing trash. If there's somebody on the other end looking at me rewriting this sentence 30 times, that's so humiliating."

By contrast, the design center for Microsoft Word is the traditional "document ownership" model. While Word can be apparently used in manner similar to Google Docs, by default you're working on a draft that belongs to YOU. When you send it for review, the document (typically protected by change control) belongs to the editor, or successive editors. When the document returns with the markups, it once again belongs to YOU. 

Microsoft Word thus avoids the trap of group writing and more naturally replicates the writer/editor relationship which has generated not just all great business writing since people started writing about business, but also every work of great literature since the invention of writing.

What's truly hilarious about the failure of Google Docs, though, is that Google designed the product based upon the same kind of egregious, pseudoscientific biz-blab that's been used to justify the open plan office, which is rapidly becoming known as the dumbest management fad of all time.

Since everyone at Google has long since swallowed the "collaboration" Kool-Aid, they're highly unlikely to yank the Google Docs "collaborative writing" feature that they wrongly and foolishly believe is their product's best competitive advantage. 

It's amazing how dumb smart people can be sometimes, eh?