Google Turns up the Heat on Microsoft Office

Google will intensify its attack on Microsoft's enterprise collaboration business with the release on Thursday of the Cloud Connect plug-in for Microsoft Office and with the launch of a trial program for the collaboration components of Google Apps.

In limited release since November, Cloud Connect is now available to all Microsoft Office 2003, 2007 and 2010 users who also have an individual Google account or a Google Apps account.

Based on technology from DocVerse, a company that Google acquired about a year ago, the Cloud Connect plug-in lets Office users share and collaboratively edit their documents by storing them on Google's cloud infrastructure but without leaving the Office interface.

Once stored on Google servers, Office documents receive a unique URL and pop into their author's Google Docs file list. Cloud Connect tracks changes and edits made to documents and lets users revert to previous versions.

Because users work at all times with the Microsoft software, documents don't need to be converted to Google Docs, avoiding formatting problems.

Docs, a hosted office productivity suite freely available with an individual Google account, competes with the Office desktop suite and with its online companion Office Web Apps, which does allow for cloud-based collaboration.

Docs is also part of Google Apps, a free, hosted collaboration and communication suite that competes with Microsoft Exchange through its Gmail component. Apps is free, except its Business edition, which costs US$50 per user per year.

Apps also competes against Microsoft's BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite), a hosted suite that includes online versions of Exchange 2007, SharePoint 2007 and Office Communications Online but not Office Web Apps.

Microsoft plans to ship this year a BPOS upgrade called Office 365 with online versions of Exchange 2010, SharePoint 2010 and Office Communications Server 2010 (renamed Lync). It also comes with Office Web Apps, and in some configurations includes the full-featured Office 2010 offered on a hosted, subscription basis.

Clearly, in Google's ideal world there would be no need for Cloud Connect because everyone would use Apps instead of Office, Exchange and SharePoint.

To that end, Google is also launching on Thursday a 90-day trial program called Appsperience for organizations to test drive the collaboration components in Apps, such as Docs and the Sites website builder.

The program doesn't include Gmail, but organizations that sign up for Apps at the end of the trial period do get the full suite, including Gmail.

The program costs US$7,000 for organizations with 500 users or less, and $15,000 for those with more than 500 users. Google and its reseller partners will actively help participating organizations get set up and trained on using the Apps collaboration components.

The program includes access to a new usage analytics dashboard that Google is also rolling out to all Apps for Business and Apps for Education customers.

The dashboard provides granular stats on Apps usage patterns within an organization, so that administrators in the trial program can eventually decide how many Apps licenses they truly need.

At first, organizations were drawn to Apps mostly by Gmail, but in the past two years, Google has seen a spike in interest and usage of Docs and Sites, said Jeremy Milo, Google Apps product marketing manager.

"That's what sparked the idea for this program," Milo said.

The general availability of Cloud Connect is expected to boost this trend even further, he said.

Industry analyst Rebecca Wettemann from Nucleus Research sees the two-punch announcement as a serious escalation of the collaboration wars between Google and Microsoft.

"This highlights the diminishing benefit of Office upgrades and it's likely to make companies reconsider their Office strategy. If everyone needs collaboration, and only power users need all the capabilities of Office, why buy both Google and Office for everyone?," she said via e-mail.

"We see the enterprise search space in three tiers: Web, desktop, and enterprise application. Google already owns the Web, this gives them more opportunity on the desktop," Wettemann added.

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