Late last year I received an email from a PR agency asking me to try out Kiwi for Gmail. Now I’m not sure whether the name of the product is a none-too-subtle attempt to gain coverage from this proud New Zealand, the PR person in question didn’t actually know the story behind the name. Nomenclature aside, Kiwi is a platform that is designed to deliver a browser-independent version of Gmail as well as the Google Apps suite – Docs, Sheets, and Slides.

Kiwi is, therefore, a series of independent desktop applications, in the same way, Microsoft Office is. The difference here is that Kiwi is built with a high level of fidelity between itself and the online Google offerings – so the user experience for Kiwi is much like that for Gmail and Docs. Kiwi goes to great lengths to insinuate that the security weaknesses of cloud office productivity applications lie in the fact that they’re browser-based. No matter the small fact that the vast majority of security breaches of applications of this type occur not because it is browser-based, but rather because of poor user-behaviors, password control etc.

Anyway, Kiwi claims that it allows Google customers to operate on the same playing field as Microsoft Office in terms of security – a pretty lofty claim from a small company whose product is just as at risk of a desktop-based security breach as a browser-based application.

But security isn’t actually my biggest bug-bear with Kiwi. I am a Google customer and have been using their various office productivity tools for many years now. My one complaint with Google lies in the offline functionality. I travel a huge amount and am often away from WiFi. I really need to be able to compose mail while offline. Now, of course, I could use Microsoft Outlook and sync it with Gmail. But after a decade of getting used to Google’s keyboard shortcuts and operating approach, I’m not willing to go back to Outlook. What I really want is the Gmail user interface, but with full-fidelity offline access.

One answer, of course, would be to simply take the plunge and go for a Chromebook. After all, my Android phone has enjoyed full offline access to Gmail for years. But I’m a Windows hguy and am still attached to some of my favorite Windows desktop apps.

So, when I got the Kiwi pitch, I thought I was made. Was this a solution to my problems? A fully-featued offline Google frontend? Alas not, it seems that offline access, in my mind the most obvious use-case for Kiwi, isn’t supported. And so I reached out to Kiwi with some questions to try and work out what they were thinking.

What are you trying to do here with Kiwi?

What we’ve done in creating desktop apps is turn them into a set of desktop applications that exist outside the browser, functioning much more like Microsoft Office and not as web pages. These are some of the key features that have made our app for the entire Google office suite so sticky with users:

  • Multi-Windowed Interface – Every document-based application on the desktop allows you to multitask easily between them and other windows. We’ve done a lot to make a multi-window engine that’s easier to use, more reliable, more robust, and tailored to each of Google’s office suite applications – as well as Google Calendar, compose message, view message windows, etc.
  • Multiple Accounts for G Suite – Our app lets you switch between and use multiple Gmail and G Suite accounts easily, and with a rock-solid engine that’s built architected in a different way than the browser. This allows us to do things like let you work with Drive across multiple accounts easily, work with Gmail as the default email handler or share files across multiple accounts seamlessly, have those accounts accessible every time you open the app, set desktop notifications for each account and calendar separately, etc.
  • Recently Closed Documents – Finding the documents you were working is one of the issues with Docs, Sheets, and Slides. Another thing every document-based desktop application does is let you open recent files. We make that work across (1) all of Docs, Sheets, and Slides together, and (2) each of those across multiple accounts. We also remember the size and placement of each window you had open.
  • Restore Windows on Restart – We add onto that by making the application remember and re-open every doc/sheet/presentation when you restart, again remembering size and location. This works on Windows as well.
  • Security – Our team has a strong security background, and where the browser is the most insecure environment on your computer, and email is the most insecure gateway that you use in that environment, we’ve implemented G Suite’s multiple accounts in a way that completely isolates them from all other access the computer has to the web.
  • Desktop Docs, Sheets, Slides Files – We’ve made it so that Kiwi works with the Google Drive App, and opens .gdoc, .gsheet, and .gslides files directly in Kiwi
  • Nearly every one of these are things are features that sit outside of the web component of Gmail. They’re things you can’t do when those applications are in the browser.
  • Users use Docs, Sheets, and Slides twice as much in our app as they do in the browser. Office365 users have a choice of desktop or G Suite-equivalent browser versions of those apps, but over 90% of users choose to use the desktop applications as well.

Bringing an Office 365 paradigm to Google Apps

Kiwi’s approach stems from a belief that Google Suite users are looking for a Microsoft Office-desktop experience. As they articulated to me:

Desktop Applications are the norm for Email, Word Documents, Spreadsheets, and Presentations… When Office365 users, according to companies we’ve spoken to, over 95% use the desktop apps rather than the cloud versions of those apps.

MyPOV

For me, the one issue I have with G-Suite is the lack of really strong offline support. I’m cloud first and the idea of wanting a desktop application in place of a browser one is a little bizarre to me. Sure, if there is a particular use case that means desktop is better (high-latency applications or ones with huge amounts of data entry requirement) then desktop might be a good option, but that’s generally not the case in my office productivity suite use.

It really feels like Kiwi is a solution looking for a problem. Sure there are people wedded to their desktop apps, but generally, they’re wedded to particular apps. For those organziations talking of user eagerness to utilize the desktop Microsoft Office applications, my take is that is not because they’re desktop based per se, but rather because those users are used to the user experience that Office offers. I’m not convinced the same situation exists for Google Apps and am a little dubious about this one.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

1 Comment
  • I had a play with this product and like you wasn’t overly impressed. A lot of their arguments about security and multi-account are pretty mis-informed. It’s almost like they’re saying Google – a multi-national tech behemoth that invests $X billions/year on security and privacy can’t do security properly so a desktop app developed by a few randoms makes more sense 🙁

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