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Hot skills: Google Apps

Nick Langley

What is it?

Google Apps is a web-based suite of office applications. The Premier Edition, which costs £25 per user per year, is being aimed at enterprises currently using Microsoft products.

Outsourcing supplier Capgemini's decision to offer desktop support to customers running Google Apps shows that even large service companies think there is money to be made from low-cost software-as-a-service applications.

The version Capgemini will be supporting is the Premier Edition, which comes with round the clock telephone support.

Google is also creating an infrastructure of companies offering software to Google Apps users, trying to create in a hurry what Microsoft has had more than a quarter of a century to build. There will be work with these companies - and for individual developers trying to fill niches.

Systems administrators may also need to get to grips with the ins and outs of managing Google Apps, probably in addition to Microsoft, since outside the low-budget worlds of education and NGOs, few organisations are likely to burn their bridges with Microsoft yet.

A report by analyst firm Burton Group - Google Apps in the Enterprise: A Promotion-Enhancing or Career-Limiting Move for Enterprise Architects? - points out that Google Apps does not support many of the functions users have grown accustomed to, programming tools are rudimentary compared with Visual Studio, the 99.9% uptime promise applies only to Gmail, and the user agreement says that Google will not be liable for lost data if the service fails.

Where did it originate?

Google began assembling Google Apps in 2006, building on the positive response to Gmail. The Premier Edition was launched in February this year, and e-mail migration was added this summer.

What's it for?

Google Apps comprises Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Talk, Docs & Spreadsheets, and a Page Creator that requires no knowledge of HTML. These are accessed through a customisable start page. There is also a set of code extensibility APIs for integration with other applications.

Administrators have a basic set of tools for tasks such as managing lists of users and creating mailing lists. There are also tools for migrating existing e-mail systems, such as Exchange, to Gmail. Once migration is complete, the old e-mail server can be abandoned, or run in parallel. APIs are supplied to enable account synchronisation with the existing user directory and provide single sign-on.

What makes it special?

The administrator's task is very much simplified, since the hardware and software is managed by Google. If use of Google Apps spreads, however, the system admin work lost will be replaced by systems integration work, which is likely to be made more interesting by Google's policy of keeping its applications in a state of continuous beta.

How difficult is it to master?

Everyday use and management of Google Apps is likely to be much simpler than managing Microsoft Office, not least because a web interface cannot be cluttered in the same way as a desktop screen. There is no feedback yet on how difficult it will be to integrate Google Apps into existing infrastructures.

Where is it used?

Google's flagship user is Arizona State University in the US. Capgemini potentially has a million desktop users, including the Inland Revenue.

What systems does it run on?

Where Microsoft only supports Internet Explorer for Windows Live, Google Apps offers support for Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera, Mozilla and Netscape.

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