When Washington, D.C., led by its then CTO, the charismatic Vivek Kundra, bought Google Apps seats for its almost 40,000 municipal employees in 2008, many predicted that the city would soon after ditch its more expensive, on-premise Microsoft software for e-mail and productivity applications.
At the time, the main reason for signing up for Google Apps was to build and run an intranet using its Sites application, but Kundra made it clear in multiple press interviews and public appearances that he strongly favored a broader adoption of the suite, namely Gmail and Docs, and a distancing from Microsoft Exchange, Outlook and Office.
Hailed by Google and many industry observers as a bold and visionary IT leader, Kundra, then only 34, extolled constantly and with fervor the virtues of the cloud-hosted software model, such as lower IT procurement costs, reduced maintenance complexity and improved collaboration capabilities.
"Why should I spend millions on enterprise apps when I can do it at one-tenth cost and ten times the speed? It's a win-win for me," he told CIO Magazine in September 2008 in an article titled "How Vivek Kundra Fought Government Waste One Google App At a Time."
However, today Exchange, Outlook, Office and SharePoint remain entrenched in the city's government, while Google Apps has made little inroads beyond its initial use for the intranet Start.Dc.Gov, despite the buzz and momentum back in 2008. Kundra left in 2009 to become CIO of the federal government, and now works at Salesforce.com.
Google has made significant progress in the enterprise market for collaboration and communication in recent years, snatching some very large customers away from Microsoft, as was the case recently with Spain's Banco Bilbao Vizcaya, which is moving more than 100,000 users to Apps.
But the case in Washington, D.C., is interesting to explore, because Microsoft was given a very low chance of holding on to that account, at a time when the company was viewed by many critics as being late and clueless about cloud software. Microsoft didn't launch a comparable competitor to Apps until mid-2011 when it released Office 365.
According to current Washington, D.C., CTO Rob Mancini, two key factors in favor of Microsoft have been the high degree of satisfaction among city employees with Exchange/Outlook and his staff's diligent and effective management and maintenance of the e-mail system.
"In many cases, when you have an effective, well-run Exchange shop and users are happy with it, it's a bit harder for Gmail to displace it," said Mancini, who leads a staff of about 500 in the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, which oversees IT for the entire city, providing services and setting strategy for 86 agencies.
In late 2010, hoping to spur use of Gmail, the city ran a pilot program, selecting about 300 users and having them use the Google product for three months. Google participated closely in the project but Gmail ultimately didn't pass the "as good or better" test with the users, who preferred Exchange/Outlook.
"Gmail is a fine product. In this particular case, you're going up against a heavyweight and when you have a satisfied workforce, it's a little more difficult," he said. "It's really the entirety of the user experience. It wasn't this feature versus that. It was the collective view and collective response to the way they had to adapt their work habits and in too many cases and too large a percentage, it just wasn't favorable. One day it might be. That door isn't forever closed."
Mancini and his staff also value how well the Microsoft products work together, not just Exchange in a vacuum, and the value, productivity, speed, performance and mobility elements of the entire Microsot stack they use.
The city renews its Apps contract on an annual basis, and still retains the ability to have all its employees use the suite, but the usage of Docs and Gmail is very low, despite efforts to boost it. Currently, active users for Docs range between 1,000 and 2,000, while for Gmail it's only 200.
Mancini has no plans to discontinue Apps because he likes the product, sees value in using it and Google has given him very good prices and has been "very adaptable to our level of use." Normally, the fee-based version of Google Apps costs $50 per user, per year.
The city uses mostly Exchange 2007, although it's piloting Exchange 2010. Its main Office version is 2007, although it has some 2003 and 2010 editions. It also uses SharePoint 2007 and 2010.
However, Mancini isn't married for life to the setup the city has now. Later this year, he plans to give a close examination to Office 365, which includes cloud-hosted versions of Office, SharePoint, Exchange and Lync.
He also continues to be open to broader use of Google Apps and is intrigued by what he considers compelling alternatives in the collaboration market, including Zoho's broad suite of cloud-based applications.
"We like to give our users an opportunity to use multiple platforms and multiple products. That works out well for us because it involves the user, and it's all about the users and their experience," he said.
The city's standard office productivity solution remains Office, but his team has "an aggressive posture" regarding the testing of a variety of productivity products, including open source an cloud-hosted solutions, he said.
His team is currently evaluating several enterprise social networking products, whose vendors he declined to name, in order to provide workplace social collaboration capabilities, like activity streams and microblogging, to city employees
He likes having options, keeps an open mind and above all and, above all, wants to avoid getting locked into a platform.
"We like the posture we're taking right now," he said.
Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.