New Business Tool: Google Apps

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Google Thursday unveiled the enterprise version of Google Apps , a set of communication and collaboration tools that provide an alternative to Microsoft Office for companies that are willing to sacrifice functionality for cost savings.

Available for $50 per user, per year, Google Apps Premier Edition includes such upgrades as integration with Google Docs & Spreadsheets , support for Gmail on BlackBerry mobile devices, 10GB of e-mail storage per user, round-the-clock phone support and service-level agreements promising 99.9% uptime. Advertising is turned off in the upgraded version unless businesses want the ads to remain. (Harry McCracken, PC World's editor in chief, blogs on the pros and cons in his entry: Google Apps vs. Microsoft Office.)

"The main reason someone would buy it is because it's cheap," says Erica Driver, a principal analyst at Forrester Research "It's $50 per user, per year, far less than Microsoft Office."

Driver calls Google Apps Premier Edition a "direct shot at Microsoft Office," even though she says that was not Google's intent. Although the functionality of Google Apps is less advanced than that of Office, the Google tool is extremely easy to use and will force Microsoft to improve its own product, she says.

Today's release builds on Google Apps, a free service launched in beta in August 2006 that includes e-mail, instant messaging, a calendar tool and Web page creator. The free versions of Google Apps are used by more than 100,000 small businesses and hundreds of universities.

Google is taking its expertise in the consumer realm and attempting to transfer it to the enterprise in a software-as-a-service package, says Rajen Sheth, the Google Apps product manager.

"We're seeing this consumerization of IT effect going on where we see consumer technologies starting to make their way into the enterprise world," Sheth says. "From our perspective, it suits us well."

What's Different

Google Apps Premier Edition includes a personalized start page combining private, corporate and public information into one interface. For example, users' start pages might include e-mail, calendar items, their organizations' customer accounts, and public information, such as news, weather and stock prices. The premier edition includes APIs that let users connect to a variety of data feeds, Sheth says.

Google Docs & Spreadsheets will let people collaborate when building and changing documents. When someone makes a change, it can be seen in real time by others working on the document, and each version of the document is saved. This provides a more secure environment for collaborating than an e-mail thread in which a document is sent back and forth and easily could be forwarded out of the company, Google officials say.

"In many ways it's like a wiki," Sheth says. "You're able to see all the changes that have been made. Lastly, you can choose who can edit it and who can view it."

Early adopters of Google Apps Premier Edition include Salesforce.com, Chicago real estate agency Prudential Preferred Properties and SF Bay Pediatrics in San Francisco.

The pediatrics practice began using Google Apps in late December, and the doctors learned how to use the program quickly, says Andrew Johnson, CIO at SF Bay Pediatrics.

"They're not technically savvy," Johnson says. "They don't want to deal with having to worry about an IT infrastructure. . . . It just allows us to outsource things to a pretty reputable name like Google."

Google Apps has improved scheduling, and the document tool provides an easy way to update the general information sheets given to patients.

The e-mail system is not compliant with federal privacy rules, so doctors and staff have to be careful not to include any personal information about patients in messages, Johnson says.

What's Missing

Google Apps lacks the collaboration functionality of Microsoft Sharepoint , but the application figures to improve, Forrester's Driver says, because Google has acquired JotSpot , which makes a wiki that lets people build spreadsheets, calendars, documents and photo galleries.

"Sharepoint is a very important part of the [Microsoft] system and a very important part that is missing in Google Apps today," Driver says. "I expect to see that functionality enter into the Google Apps offering this year, and they'll begin to be more competitive."

Google would like its product to be adopted en masse by large enterprises, Driver says, but for now Google Apps probably will be used primarily by small businesses looking for a less expensive alternative to Microsoft Outlook and Exchange.

Another bit of news being announced today will help market Google Apps to small businesses. Google Apps will be made available to subscribers of DirectPointe 's Small Office Solution, a managed network service.

This story, "New Business Tool: Google Apps" was originally published by Network World.

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