Getting a handle on Google Apps

When Google launched its web-based e-mail service (Gmail) on April 1, 2004, many people thought it was an April Fool’s Day joke, and perhaps with good reason. That same day, the company had posted plans to open a research facility on the moon.

The moon project was a joke. But people quickly realized that Gmail was for real, and the service would serve as the foundation for the company’s launching of Google Apps, a free set of messaging and collaboration applications, including e-mail (Gmail), calendar, documents & spreadsheets, presentations, instant messaging (Google Talk), a wiki (Google Sites) and a start page (iGoogle).

Since launching an enterprise version of Google Apps in February 2007 for $50 per user per year, Google entered a competitive landscape inhabited for decades by the likes of Microsoft and IBM, both of whom offer office productivity software and corporate e-mail systems.

But it hasn’t been an easy road for Google Enterprise (the name given to the division of the company that oversees Google Apps). According to Jonathan Edwards, an analyst with the Yankee Group, Google has faced reluctant IT departments (and their CIOs) who see Google Apps as a consumer product, out of touch with the realities of providing the proper security, support and reliability businesses require in enterprise software.

Google Apps Makers Believe Time (and IT Value) Is on Their Side

Google officials acknowledge this challenge of convincing corporate IT departments that they can be a business software provider. But leaders at Google Enterprise and Google Apps believe they will win the good graces of large business over time for the same reasons other SaaS (software as a service) vendors, such as, did years ago.

According to Dave Girouard, President of Google Enterprise, software delivered over the Web (or “the cloud”) like Google Apps allows IT departments to realize substantial cost savings by having fewer servers to maintain and seamless upgrades to the applications which don’t require IT or end-users to ever hit a button.

“IT resources are scarce at any company, and with the people you have, they shouldn’t be managing e-mail servers,” Girouard says. “Those people ought to be working on things that are special and proprietary, things that help you win over competitors.”

In addition, Gmail’s popularity among consumers could cause users to rise up and call for its adoption in large organizations, what the authors Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research call a “Groundswell”.

Rebecca Wettemann, vice president with the consultancy Nucleus Research, sees the potential uprising, too. “Users begin to ask, ‘Why is this easier at home than at work?’ ” says Wettemann. “Many software firms are trying to leverage what’s going on in the consumer space and bring it to users at businesses. Google is very well-positioned to do that.”

Google Apps to Microsoft Office: We Come as a Friend, Not a Foe

The spread of Gmail and Google’s overall popularity as the web’s top search engine made the launch of Google Apps an interesting alternative for businesses to consider: what if you could pay little or nothing for online software and get document and spreadsheet capabilities similar to what you used to pay Microsoft many dollars for with Office?

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and chairman Bill Gates have downplayed Google Apps’ importance, dismissing it as not being a true competitor. Both have noted that Microsoft Office applications such as Word and Excel offer more features than Google Apps.

Girouard and other Google Apps leaders have two responses to such statements: First, in the context of large enterprises, Google views its productivity software as a supplement, not a replacement, to Microsoft Office. Only in the case of Gmail and calendaring, he concedes, does Google Apps present enterprises and their users with a choice.

“It’s around e-mail (and calendars) where you have co-existence issues with Google users and non Google users,” he says. “With docs, it tends to no really be an issue because people are just using both [Google Apps and Office] and they use what makes sense for a particular task.”

Secondly, Google isn’t focused on the quantity of features it can embed into the product. Instead, it’s focused on letting users collaborate online in real time. In other words, it doesn’t matter to Google whether a person composes content in the Google Apps interface or Microsoft Word.

“Google Apps is used alongside other applications, and we believe that will increasingly be the case,” says Girouard. “In the cloud-based model, there will be more vendor choice and mixing and matching rather than standardizing on a single vendor.”

With respect to features, the people designing and managing Google Apps say they focus on getting each feature right for the user rather than packing in new, or half-baked, functions into the software for the sake of it.

“It’s not about the application with 503 features beating the app with 502 features,” says Rajen Sheth, product lead for Google Apps. “I think it’s more about the app with 15 really solid, really useful features.”

The Flavours of Google Apps

Consumer: Any person who has a Gmail account has access to the consumer version of Google Apps. This includes the key functions (Gmail, Calendar, Docs & Spreadsheets, Talk and Google Sites). Ads run along side many of the applications to subsidize the user’s free experience. Each user gets 6.7 GB of storage.

Standard: This is utilized by many small and medium sized businesses and is also free (with ads). It has everything found in the consumer version, but it enables companies to use their own e-mail address (instead of @gmail) and has mobile access, an administrator control panel, e-mail migration tools, and online support.

Premier: For $50 per user per year, it includes 25 GB of storage per user and no ads. Aside from all the features of the standard version, it has e-mail security provided by Postini, and it comes with APIs that allow organizations to integrate Google Apps with enterprise single-sign on systems and e-mail. It also includes 24-hour phone support.

The Security and Compliance Question: Getting Comfortable with Google

Google’s philosophy around information security is fairly simple: your data is safer with Google than it is with you.

“That’s sort of bold and right in the face of what people object to with SaaS, but to be honest, that’s the truth,” Girouard says. “We’ve had intelligence agencies of the United States government tell us that: ‘we think our data would be safer with Google than it is on our own servers.'”

As Google offers prospective customers a deeper look at its security under non-disclosure agreement, it’s impossible to know what those agencies found so appealing. On a more practical level, however, analysts say Google’s acquisition of Postini, a security vendor, has helped in their efforts to show that they are serious about keeping enterprise data safe. The Google Apps premier edition has a Postini console to manage messaging security.

“Postini has helped Google Apps a bit,” says Edwards. “Postini has a proven security product that many businesses have trusted.”

Google also received a Statement of Auditing (SAS 70) certification, which requires a close examination of the company’s internal security controls. Such certification has been seen as an important step for SaaS companies showing customers they’re in line with compliance standards, especially Sarbanes-Oxley, Edwards says.

While Google officials like Girouard are bullish on the business value of their online applications, analysts say the company’s high profile among consumers makes it more difficult to win over IT departments than other SaaS companies have faced in the past.

Nuclues Research’s Wettemann says that people wonder if their enterprise data could somehow come up on a search by a regular consumer using the Google search bar. “A lot of it is perception,” Wettemann says. “You look at what they do with Google Health, and people wonder, ‘will people be able to Google me and find my health records?’ The answer is of course no, but it takes people [and businesses] some time to get over that idea.”

It’s Social

Traditional e-mail and productivity tools for businesses have typically been anti-social. For instance, if a user composed a document on Microsoft Word, the ability to share it with colleagues in real-time has been fairly limited. At most organizations, the tendency would be to e-mail it around to coworkers, or, if the company used Microsoft SharePoint or Office Live, they could check it in and out of a central repository.

With Google Apps, the idea of sharing, even with basic productivity tools, takes a front and center stage. With Google Docs, for instance, users edit and modify the document online and the changes happen in real time.

Google also recently added social software such as wikis to the Google Apps portfolio. Google Sites, as it’s called, allows people in businesses to use the wiki technology (which Google originally acquired from a start-up vendor Jotspot) to build websites and intranets with no programming experience.

As all these tools get thrown into Gadgets, and moved across various applications, Sheth believes users can build their business and personal connections more efficiently.

The Consumer Consumes the Enterprise

It should seem appropriate that Gmail and later its accompanying Google Apps started as online tools for consumers. After all, Google philosophically has built its search business on the collective intelligence of Web users: if a website page is popular and relevant, Google recognizes it and presents it up high in its search results.

While Google does face the challenges voiced by what analysts describe as IT departments worried about their enterprise data being stored alongside consumer data, Google views its straddling of the enterprise and consumer spaces as a competitive advantage.

Girouard says he talks a lot about this subject with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and describes it as a quest for technological relevance in modern life.

“I spend more time with Larry and Sergey on that topic than anything else: how do you make technology that recognizes that we are consumers and workers all in one person?” Girouard says. “How can I recognize that my life has become increasingly blended? I should have one calendar because I only have one day. What’s the point of having separate calendars? I should have one unified view of my life.”

Google has been particularly successful in this “blending” with iGoogle, a personalized portal where, using Google Gadgets, people can add widgets that blend both their consumer and enterprise diets. For instance, they might have one widget that displays documents they are editing with colleagues along side another widget displaying YouTube video or New York Times headlines.

“Getting this right for the user will be incredibly valuable,” Girouard says. “We’re in a unique position to do that because it’s hard for either a pure enterprise company to do that and it’s hard for a company that’s all in the consumer world to do it.”

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