On Wednesday the Google Apps Marketplace had its first birthday. It now features over 300 apps, compared to just 50 when it opened its doors in March 2010.
The Apps Marketplace allows third-party software vendors to tie in their cloud offerings to Google's standard apps, like Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs. The chief benefit is allowing users to sign in just once for all their cloud applications, but applications can share data too--a project management app could access your e-mail contacts, for example, and could let you attach files you've created in Google Docs.
The year has given Google time to collect feedback from users, and none of it is very surprising.
Google says that users most value Web apps that work together, which is to say, that are able to share data or interoperate. This might sound like the raison d'être for the Marketplace, but a significant number of the apps are little more than links to another Website, from where the Web app runs seemingly in ignorance of any of Google's offerings.
Google could take a harder line with businesses that simply use the Apps Marketplace as a showcase for their existing offerings. However, there's little sign of Google taking action against this soon, and I suspect at the moment all Google wants to do is create a buoyant ecosystem. Combing through and introducing rules can come later.
Secondly, Google admits that the sheer number of apps is becoming overwhelming and that users need some help choosing what's right for their needs. For example, search for a customer relationship management (CRM) package, and you'll find 52 offerings. Increasingly, apps are marking themselves out from their competitors by incorporating specialized features, but it can be hard to spot this.
A reviews and rating system is in place for each app, but this can easily be gamed by interested parties. Sure enough, there are a number of overwhelmingly positive reviews here and there that suggest either the author has overdosed on Prozac or that something fishy is going on.
The 12 months have also given Google time to work out that the most popular Marketplace apps are CRM software and project management--applications that benefit directly from collaborative online working. It's likely these two categories of apps are so popular because they're typically used by remote workers, who might need to record data about a customer contact without having to return to the office, for example.
Given this popularity, the lack of Google's own CRM or project management cloud software might indicate it missed the bullseye with its Google Docs suite, which offers a word processor, spreadsheet and presentations package, but is still struggling to gain traction within the business world. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but it was only last year that Google added real-time co-editing features that pushed Docs a little closer towards being a must-use tool, rather than an interesting curiosity.
Perhaps it's the "the mobile worker test" that ultimately decides the usefulness of a cloud business app. In short, does the cloud app offer something a road warrior can't do without?
In the case of Google Docs, the answer is that there's not yet anything compelling that a mobile worker needs. They can simply knock up any documents they require on the road using Microsoft Office, and then save it to disk before taking action on it when they return to headquarters.
The recent addition of cloud printing to the Google Chrome browser might make Google Docs slightly more compelling--a worker could also print the file to an office printer while sitting in his/her hotel room, for example. But that involves a paradigm shift that'll take a while to bed in, if it ever manages to take off. An office would need to set aside a cloud printer, for example, with pigeon holes to keep the print jobs of workers who print remotely while out and about.
CRM and productivity apps are providing a killer app of sorts for the cloud, but only for those who need those specific features. No single cloud app yet offers the kind of must-have functionality that allowed VisiCalc to herald in the personal computer revolution, for example. That's why the vibe emanating from Google feels a little subdued. Google's wants us to migrate to the cloud but realizes it can only do so as our attitudes soften and working practices change. That could take some time.
Keir Thomas has been making known his opinion about computing matters since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com . His Twitter feed is @keirthomas.