Google's big appeal to small firms

Enterprise users remain cautious about Google Apps Premier Edition, but small firms may provide the software with valuable returns

Last week's launch of Google Apps Premier Edition, which offers businesses low-cost office productivity software such as e-mail, calendar, contacts and word processing, has so far been treated cautiously by IT chiefs of major enterprises, but looks set to play well among smaller businesses.

The hosted service costs £26 per user per year and includes 10Gbytes of storage per user.

But although the licence looks likely to be attractive to smaller firms in particular, IT directors and industry analysts who spoke to Computer Weekly said take-up for Google Apps might initially be limited for enterprise users as an alternative to Microsoft Office.

Denise Plumpton, director of information at the Highways Agency, said Google should be viewed as a major force. "It is clearly aiming to position itself as a major player in the market, and I think it stands a good chance of eroding Microsoft's customer base," she said.

"I can see how SMEs that do not wish to invest in infrastructure or do not have the necessary in-house technical support for Microsoft will regard this with interest," she said.

But Plumpton said since most corporates had made a large investment in Microsoft Office, interest in Google Apps would be limited for some time to come.

"There is the licensing investment and the intellectual property contained in all the documents that have been created and stored, plus the years of staff training and exposure to take into account. That means that even given Google's relatively low licence cost, the business case for migration will not be easily made," she said

Burton Group analyst Guy Creese, a specialist in content management collaboration and content strategies, said the functionality being offered was "solid, if not as strong or as sophisticated as what is available with IBM and Microsoft".

"The sweet spot for Google will be smaller businesses that have not installed an IT infrastructure, do not want to, and have relatively simple requirements," he said.

But Creese also said Google might struggle to make a big success of Apps in the long term.

"I would not be surprised if Google Apps plays out the way Google Search Appliance has. After initially liking it for its low cost and ease of installation, customers might start to want greater capabilities."

Speaking last week to Computer Weekly, however, Google said Google Apps Premier Edition was not an alternative to Microsoft Office. Google said it expected that many business would use both Microsoft Office and Google Apps.

Butler analyst Michael Azoff also sees good long-term prospects for Google. He said the power of Google Apps would lie in its ability to integrate with other business applications, using enterprise mashup technology.

"With origins in consumer-led Web 2.0, mashups for business applications are just beginning to take off and opportunities to be realised," he said.

More immediately, however, the strong links between the CIO and Microsoft could stand in Google's way. Richard Steel, CIO of ICT Services at Newham Borough Council, which has a 10-year strategic supplier relationship with Microsoft, said he saw little immediate value in Google's offering.

Steel said Google Apps was simple in comparison with Microsoft Office and not a like-for-like offer, with the latter incorporating project management, presentation, organisation, collaboration, database and publishing tools.

"Microsoft Office is much more than a word processor and e-mail. Outlook is a way of life for many users, with scheduling, contacts, workflow, and is linked into the Active Directory."

But the use of traditional software is changing. Bob Tarzey, service director at Quocirca, suggested that Google Apps could find its way into business by new workers introducing the software into companies.

He said, "Teenagers and students choosing the Google tools over Microsoft could turn up in the workplace 'Google tools ready' rather than 'Microsoft Office ready'."

Google said, "Many people now work in teams dispersed around the world. This new way of working requires a new model of computing - one based on shared content and communication. Google Apps provides an affordable and reliable complement to traditional software to better serve this new model."

The Forrester guide to Google Apps Premier Edition

● Grill your information workplace platform suppliers. There is no reason to run from Microsoft or IBM just yet, but turn your attention to these two suppliers and ask them when they plan to offer office productivity software as a service, or offer office productivity tools at a price like Google's.

● Put enterprise policies, standards and governance in place now. Otherwise, people will do their own thing and firms could run the risk of a return to the days when Microsoft was not a corporate standard and there were several competing word processing packages being used inside companies.

● Be proactive and establish your corporate policies before Google's offering and others - which have yet to come to the market - start making their presence felt.

● Think through privacy and security concerns. Google offers no guarantee that business content - including critical corporate intellectual property like spreadsheets and word processing documents - is protected from unauthorised viewers.

Because content stored on Google's systems is not encrypted, it is theoretically accessible to Google's internal systems administration staff. However, Google does have internal controls in place to ensure that only certain staff have access to customer data, and those who have access must agree to certain constraints.

All an external person needs to access items stored in Google Apps Premier Edition is a user name and a password cracking tool. However, this is no different from any other system that is accessible via a user name and password.

If you are deeply concerned about the security of hosted content, consider running your own authentication system on top of Google Apps Premier Edition.

Source: Forrester Research

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