Google Apps: Will the Market Change the Cloud Game?

Google has entered the hosted applications market. Richard Chirgwin assesses the company's offering and its suitability for business users.

Google has entered the hosted applications market. Does the company's effort matter?

On the one hand, Google says it has 2 million business users of Google Apps. On the other hand, in the huge world of the Internet, that number is a drop in the bucket. Even Twitter, considered by many to be a kind of joke, has more users (estimated at about 18 million at the end of 2009).

In that context, the launch of the Google Apps Marketplace is either a waste of time for developers (since there are bigger markets to be found elsewhere), or a canny way to emulate other platform vendors’ successes – to attract users via the third parties who develop applications for the platform.

And, as noted in the blog post announcing  the Google Apps Marketplace, “we can’t do it all”. Google’s own focus has been mail, calendaring, documents, Web design, video sharing and, of course, Google Groups.

One of Google’s stated aims is to get cloud applications out of the silos they now live in. Whether or not it has specifically in mind, that hugely-successful enterprise cloud application does stand as an example of the problem Google says it wants to solve: central to the business, but demanding of users that information in other silos – be they spreadsheets or local address books or calendars – find some way to move data between applications.

Hence by “Googling” the back end of the cloud application, the search giant presumably hopes to eventually integrate the data behind the applications. And, of course, with a single sign-on to the cloud applications, users would get a simpler experience as well. And, obviously, there’s the attraction of the one-stop-shop for the applications themselves.

The migration of the application’s back-end isn’t, however, compulsory. As an added attraction to software developers that need to protect their existing investments, Google will allow Apps Marketplace applications to be served out of the partners’ own facilities, as long as they support the OpenID and OAuth identification and authentication standards. This lets Google centralise the customer side of the equation, without demanding that the application be re-written into the Google App engine – and without presenting such a potentially-threatening face to the application developer.

Although Google is on the record as favouring competition in the Apps Marketplace – even where a product might compete with Google – that’s not much in evidence under the areas of document management or e-mail. The only document applications in the marketplace right now are add-ons to Google Docs, while such e-mail apps as are available target either synching activities or migration from other e-mail systems into gmail.

The question is: is this a game-changer for Google? Will a wider variety of applications, competition among developers, and a single point-of-purchase mean Google can do to Microsoft what it’s done for search?

One of the great promises of software-as-a-service is what it can offer a business by way of flexibility.

Teleworking remains, in many ways, perpetually over the horizon, in spite of the revolution that’s taken place over the last decade. Connectivity is mostly adequate for the teleworker, and there have been great leaps forward in the systems available to support remote users.

Mostly, however, truly integrated telework remains the preserve of companies large enough to support all the disparate systems needed. The company has to implement the security needed to let employees in but keep bad guys out; it has to work out often complicated rules for remote user access to databases as well as storage servers; it needs to keep control over the remote endpoints (making sure, for example, that there’s been no malware infection of the user’s machine). And, given the changes in what we carry and how we use technology, teleworking increasingly exposes the IT department to unfamiliar platforms (such as smartphones).

With all this to cope with, SMBs in particular have to live with a D-I-Y approach to the teleworker: remember to synch your phone, copy documents to the server when you visit the office, work out how to make sure local changes to a database are synched back to the office system, and so on.

There is a promise in cloud computing that could be boosted by Google Apps breaking out of its in-house ghetto and getting a bigger application footprint. It could provide the SMBs with a much more effective way of teleworking.

Centralisation of the application is a big step forward, but it doesn’t complete the picture.

To succeed, the Apps Marketplace will need the breadth of applications to cover all that the SMB might need. Today’s Apps Marketplace looks constrained; it’s unimaginative, in as much as while everybody knows a business needs calendars, CRM and accounting software, the true diversity of businesses is reflected in the huge number of niche applications they run.

It looks, in fact, as if it was designed as a purpose-built software-as-a-service environment for professional services companies.

But look at the business market in Australia. SMBs are, as politicians never fail to remind us, the largest employing segment in the economy – but professional services is not the largest segment of SMBs. That honour belongs to the retail sector. And according to the ABS, the largest proportion of independent contractors is not in professional services, but in the trades sector (the so-called “blue-collar” SMB gets an even bigger lead if we include machinery operators and labourers).

Over time, Google Apps Marketplace will need to attract people developing the kinds of software used by people who aren’t like Google. The retailer is far more interested in a quick reconciliation of the cash registers than in a groovy online collaboration portal – and even more so if it’s a retailer with two or three outlets.

At best, the Google Apps Marketplace looks like a promising start – but there’s a lot more to be done.

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