Earlier this year, Google said that the number of organisations using Google Apps had passed the half-million mark, with two- to three-thousand more signing up every day. The vast majority, the company admitted, were small- and medium-sized companies, schools and universities. But there were also some big names on Google's list: General Electric, L'Oreal, Procter & Gamble.
These are early days. Google began assembling Google Apps in the summer of 2006, building on the positive response to Gmail. The paid-for and supported Premier Edition was launched in February last year. The company is now trying to build, on the fly, the kind of infrastructure of partners and services that Microsoft, which claims over 500-million Office users, took two decades to establish.
The company will not provide a breakdown between users who are paying for the software (at £25/$50 per user licence: unlike some of its competitors, Google does not just stick a pound sign in front of the dollar price), and those who have taken the free downloads to evaluate.
Those big organisations are a long way from moving their users from Office to Google Apps. General Electric CTO, Gregory Simpson, said the company is "evaluating Google Apps for the easy access it provides to a suite of web applications, and the way these applications can help people work together". L'Oreal's international director of information technology, Jean-Paul Beck, says the cosmetics firm is testing Google Apps "to optimize collaboration between its researchers". This is less about saving money on office applications than doing something about Web 2.0, with the backing of the biggest Web 2.0 brand. Gartner Group says Google has a two to three year lead over Microsoft in web-based online collaboration tools.
Google Apps includes Google Docs word processing, spreadsheet and presentations, Google Calendar, and Gmail, plus Google Sites, which provides some Sharepoint-like functionality. Google Gears provides the ability to work offline - one of the strongest early criticisms of Google Apps was that you could not use it offline - and synchronise data and content when going online again.
For smaller users particularly, the appeal is not simply the price, but the opportunity to hand over support, administration and storage responsibilities to Google. Administrators are spared the often-onerous task of tracking and applying security patches, and bugs can be fixed straight away instead of the fixes being saved up and delivered as service packs. New features can appear overnight they can also disappear, although Google is far from the first supplier to test new features on live customers. And everybody is using the same version, so there should be no compatibility problems, and no disruptive roll-outs of upgrades.
Data is stored in the "cloud", something unlikely to be acceptable to large enterprises, with their regulatory compliance responsibilities, for a long time yet. However, as well as appealing to SMEs, this simplifies life for mobile users, who have direct access to the same data everyone else is using, without synchronisation problems. Journalists working for Mondadori are already using Google Apps on their travels.
The most serious long-term threat to Microsoft Office may come from the change in consciousness among students and schoolchildren. One of the reasons people do not consider alternatives to Microsoft Office is that UK schools have made Microsoft's applications synonymous with IT skills. Children learn word-processing using Word. When he moved up to secondary school, my son was told that PowerPoint was a "learning skill" he would need to acquire.
Microsoft's classroom dominance came under threat when the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency announced last year that upgrading to Vista and Office 2007 was not recommended, because it would increase costs and create software compatibility problems, while providing little benefit. BECTA said that instead, schools and colleges should make pupils, teachers and parents aware of free-to-use products.
Some schools have already taken that advice. Dan Leighton is head of IT at Cottenham Village College in Cambridgeshire, a secondary school with around 1050 registered users, which moved to Google Apps last year. "We had the whole thing set up in about six man hours spread across a week." Leighton says it is "ultra-reliable", with no "arbitrary and restrictive" limits on space or attachment size. "It does everything Outlook and Exchange does, and it is free."
Microsoft Office has little appeal to parents and other consumers: it can double the cost of a home PC. People are using Google Apps at home, and on their iPhones, then continuing to use it when they get into the office, side by side with Microsoft applications.
"Google Apps' key strength is its cost its weakness is functionality," says Laurent Lachal, Ovum's open source research director. But he adds that Microsoft's online version, Office Live Workspaces, is even more limited. And in line with Microsoft's "software and services" rather than "software as a service" approach, you will have to have an Office licence to get anything other than read-only access.
Perhaps there is too much concern about functionality, when the real day-to-day needs of users are pretty basic. As analyst Robin Bloor put it when Google Apps Premium Edition was launched, "Microsoft Office is ridiculously over-featured. For 50% of users, if not 80%, Google Apps will be good enough." Now, wasn't there another software company that built an empire on products that were "good enough"?