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Can Google really hack it in business?

After conquering the search world, Google is now pushing hard to be a major provider of business software, tackling longtime dominator Microsoft over productivity and collaboration apps. But does this company, most famous for free consumer-oriented offerings like search and basic apps, have what it takes to be taken seriously by business? Can you really rely on Google Apps?

Ken Godskind thinks so. The chief strategy officer at AlertSite moved his company's 45 employees to the Premier Edition of Google Apps in late 2008. He likes the fact that he gets not only e-mail but word processing, spreadsheets, a Web-based calendar, Web-based collaboration, Google Talk, and Google Video for $50 a year per user. That's a third or less of what he would pay to get the same from an internal, Microsoft-based environment.

And Godskind is not alone. A recent IDC survey shows that Google Docs is “widely used” in 20% of companies. (Google Docs is the set of word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and calendar components of Google Apps.) And even some large organizations — the latest being the city of Los Angeles and its 30,000 users — are adopting Google Docs and the corporate version of Gmail. Chalk up yet more converts in Google's crusade to make itself, not Microsoft, the default choice for everything from word processing and spreadsheets to e-mail.

So far, many of the early takers have been smaller businesses that didn't need enterprise-level management and integration with other applications. But since the fall of 2008, when biotech giant Genentech became its first big-name enterprise customer, Google has rolled out features to lure other enterprises. These include client software to allow users to keep working while offline, Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook (to let Gmail users work through the familiar Microsoft e-mail client), and Google Apps Connector for BlackBerry Enterprise Server so that mobile users can access Google Apps on their smartphones.

More than 400 Google Apps resellers provide advanced help such as data migration, training, and configuration, while independent developers fill the gaps in Google's enterprise offerings with tools to help manage directories, back up and restore data, and comply with regulations.

Google's vision extends beyond the apps, into a new computing paradigm based on the cloud, in which apps might run on a netbook or smartphone powered by Google's Android rather than on a PC running Windows. The apps and data will sit on Google's servers, not in the customer's datacenter. No more management headaches, no more hardware and software to buy — just blissful online collaboration and deep cost savings.

But not so fast. Users will have to learn a new interface and to share documents in the cloud rather than e-mail them back and forth. Someone has to migrate years of old e-mail and other data to the Google cloud. There are sometimes pesky issues linking Google Apps to legacy applications, mobile devices, and users who refuse to give up the familiar Microsoft Outlook e-mail client. Tech support isn't always up to enterprise standards. Then there are concerns over data privacy, security, and regulatory compliance, especially for larger companies that must follow strict data management rules.

But don't worry, says Google and its backers. With an R&D budget of more than $2 billion per quarter fueled by massive search advertising profits, Google will fix whatever's not right — and probably sooner rather than later. That is, when it's not busy reinventing the operating system (with its pending, free Chrome OS), taking over the smartphone OS space (with its free Android OS), and maybe killing off the GPS navigation business by bundling (again, free) GPS and mapping with Android.

To Google, all these technologies aren't spaghetti thrown against the wall to see what sticks. They're strategic bets in a multifront campaign to build a Web-based replacement for Windows and Office. And people are listening.

But is Google Apps delivering? InfoWorld decided to find out.

Google Apps pros: Cost and uptime

Resellers, customers, and analysts agree that the paid version of Google Apps delivers on its core promise of costing a third or less than a similar lineup of Microsoft products.

Because e-mail is a huge expense for large companies, it's no surprise that Gmail is a popular draw. Upgrading from Microsoft Exchange 2003 to Exchange 2007 is often a trigger to considering cloud-based e-mail because it forces many customers to also buy new 64-bit servers and operating systems. For such reasons, Forrester Research analyst Ted Schadler says that cloud-based e-mail (whether from Google or a rival) is almost always cheaper for companies with fewer than 15,000 users.

Although its uptime isn't perfect (and its outages get big play), Google says it consistently meets its 99.9% uptime guarantee. It also quotes a Radicati Group study that found Gmail four times more reliable than Microsoft's Exchange messaging server when considering only unplanned outages, and ten times more reliable when taking into account planned downtime for maintenance.

Google Apps maybes: Data security

The fit to business is less clear when it comes to data security, especially for big corporations. Data security in the cloud is an issue “enterprises are going to have to reckon with,” admits AlertSite's Godskind. A prime example: In moving to Google Apps, the city of Los Angeles insisted on penalties from Google if any of its data was compromised. Many other customers aren't worried, trusting that bigger (and presumably more tech-savvy) customers will hold Google's feet to the fire on security.

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