By Carmi Levy, independent technology analyst and journalist

 By now, every Gmail user on the planet has either tried Google Buzz out, or is counting the hours until the new social networking capability is rolled out to his/her specific account.

While the debate rages over whether Google Buzz is a Facebook killer – this is a business-focused blog, so I’ll leave the Buzz vs. Farmville/Mafia Wars issue for someone else – the real story has nothing to do with consumers. Buried not too deeply in Google’s announcement was this bit about the company’s plans “to make Google Buzz available to businesses and schools using Google Apps, with added features for sharing within organizations.” 

Google’s plans to drive social networking deeper into its fast evolving Google Apps suite represents yet another inflection point in the evolution of both social networking tools – which up until now have been seen largely consumer-focused – and Web-based productivity applications whose stripped down feature set made them a showstopper for most enterprises.

Can making Web-based productivity apps more socially aware turn both of these not-ready-for-business-prime-time offerings into a killer app for efficiency-minded post-recessionary businesses? 

The answer is yes. Eventually. While Facebook should indeed be running scared now that Google seems to have overcome its inability to gain traction in the social networking space – Orkut and Wave, for example, remain laughably half-baked attempts to keep pace – the initial battle for consumer loyalty pales in comparison with the business play to come. At stake are the productivity desktops of tomorrow, the future of Microsoft’s Office franchise, the business world’s acceptance of cloud-based apps, and IT’s role in deploying and supporting these solutions no matter where they may reside. 

Google Buzz won’t be the final word in this evolution, but this week’s announcement serves notice that not only is the pace of change in how applications are delivered accelerating, but the very definitions of enterprise productivity apps and social networking tools are about to undergo fairly radical change as well. Which makes me wonder if the business community is ready for a world where socially aware, collaboration-savvy, enterprise-class productivity apps are no longer installed from a DVD. 

Because the buzz (sorry, couldn’t resist) seems to revolve around the decidedly consumer-focused Facebook and Twitter, I suspect most business leaders aren’t chiming into the significance of this week’s announcement. I’m convinced that they should be. And the time to have those conversations is now, because even if they never integrate a Google-based solution into their application inventory, the overall market can’t help but be influenced by this announcement and future ones like it. Rest assured that Microsoft is closely watching Google as it shapes its own productivity, collaboration and Web software roadmap. This is one cat-and-mouse game that over time will reshape how work gets done, and how IT positions itself to support this fundamentally changed architecture.

It wasn’t long ago that companies dealt with the encroachment of social networking and Web-based productivity apps by simply banning them from employee desktops. Google Buzz marries and legitimizes both genres, and serves notice that IT needs to finally deal with this very different reality.

Carmi Levy is an independent technology analyst and journalist based in London, Ontario. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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