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Commentary: Google's low-cost alternative to Microsoft Office

While Google Apps Premier Edition isn't yet on par with the dominant productivity suite, the Google mystique and the $50 price count for a lot.

    Commentary: Google's low-cost alternative to Microsoft Office
    By Forrester Research
    Special to CNET
    February 22, 2007, 11:56AM PT

    By Erica Driver, Matt Brown and Kyle McNabb

    Google's latest foray into making affordable messaging, collaboration and office productivity tools targets business people worldwide and takes dead aim at Microsoft Office.

    For only $50 per user per year, Google Apps Premier Edition, unveiled on Thursday, lets companies register domains and access e-mail, calendars, chat, documents and spreadsheets with no installed servers or software or people to maintain them. Google is not simply attacking Microsoft's core e-mail and office productivity applications business--it is expanding the market for workplace productivity tools to include people who have traditionally been left without them; specifically, people who work primarily with other people and people who work primarily with things in the physical world.

    related story

    Subscription version of Gmail, Google Talk and other services--$50
    a year per user--now includes Docs & Spreadsheets.

    In August, Google dipped its toes in the office productivity applications business when it released Google Apps for Your Domain. This on-demand, Ajax-based service included Gmail, Calendar, a start page, Google Talk, Docs & Spreadsheets and a generous 2GB storage quota for free to anyone who was willing to receive advertising within this digital environment. Since the launch of Google Apps For Your Domain, more than 100,000 organizations have signed on--including Arizona State University, which rolled it out to its 65,000 students--and more than 150,000 domains have been registered.

    Now, with Google Apps Premier Edition, you can enterprise-size it: jack the storage up to 10GB, get 24-7 phone support and 99.9 percent availability through a service-level agreement, and optionally remove that pesky advertising.

    What it lacks for business people
    It's easy to look at these tools and laugh, given their limited functionality relative to "real" enterprise software tools and platforms.

    Compared with the big gun in this industry, Microsoft Office Enterprise 2007, Google Apps Premier Edition currently lacks

    • Team collaboration and basic business apps. Functionally, Google's tools pale in comparison with products like Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, which neatly links your Microsoft Office applications to back-end servers, the Web and a dizzying set of software services. Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 also offer a rich team collaboration environment, basic document management services, and a set of 40 application templates including business performance reporting, employee self-service benefits and manufacturing process management. Google Apps Premier Edition also lacks a Groove equivalent. Groove is peer-to-peer collaboration software that works well offline and across firewalls--it is particularly well-suited to inter-enterprise collaboration and can plug into SharePoint repositories on the back end.

    • A OneNote equivalent. While not quite the next killer app on the desktop, many information workers use Microsoft OneNote to support the collaborative capture of meeting notes and actions, capture and annotate presentations, keep interview notes or capture notes created on a tablet PC in a more familiar notebook format. OneNote supports dispersed work groups by synchronizing meeting notes captured by multiple authors in real time. While offline, OneNote provides end users with a single place to capture and review what they normally may have captured in a spiral notebook--with the added advantage of capturing audio and video content.

    Google's opportunity may be enormous
    The really interesting question is not the effect Google will have on Microsoft and its market share. Instead, the question is how big the market will grow when it consists of people willing to trade a lot of functionality, a bit of money and a bit of privacy for some generally useful software.

    Google is unapologetic about its functionality gap. Why? Because

    • Google's addressable market may be enormous. The company's viewpoint is that Google Apps Premier Edition offers the basics that many workers need. Google execs are banking on an assumption that nearly half of all workers in the U.S. don't have access to company-provided e-mail. This market, which we've heard referred to as "underserved workers" or even "people who work in noncarpeted facilities" is one that Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, SAP and others can't easily reach given their roots in enterprise products that require IT people to install and manage software on workers' local machines.

    • It's cheap! Consider this: The student version of Microsoft Office runs about $150 per user--and that's just for Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Google Apps Premier Edition costs about one-third of that, and you get some additional market-proven and reliable collaboration tools like Gmail and Google Talk from a vendor that enjoys tremendous mindshare, good will and mystique. The Microsoft Office 2007 Professional Full Version retails for about $500 per user. You would have to run Google Apps Premier Edition for more than 10 years to make Office a better value.

    • Google provides some APIs. APIs (application programming interfaces) enable developers to integrate Google Apps with existing enterprise systems. An IMAP interface enables e-mail integration and migration of e-mail from its current system to Gmail. A mail gateway API allows administrators to route mail through a gateway in support of archiving, business rules or dual delivery. Google provides an API for integrating with enterprise directories for user provisioning--creating, synchronizing and destroying user accounts. And a security assertion markup language (SAML) 2.0 authentication API can be used for single sign-on.

    • Additional apps are coming soon. In the second half of 2006, Google acquired JotSpot, a start-up best known for its on-demand wiki service. With this acquisition, Google gains an additional set of basic business applications, adds yet another content format to its search and advertising dominance, and validates the importance of wiki tools to Internet users. It's highly likely that the capabilities Google acquired when it picked up JotSpot will find their way into Google Apps Premier Edition--possibly before the end of the year.

    But don't rush to Google just yet
    Google Apps Premier Edition is not yet proven in large-scale business environments. However, it is a proof point that we're getting closer to software-as-a-service for information workers.

    Information and knowledge management professionals should

    • Grill information workplace platform vendors. There's no reason to run from Microsoft or IBM, just yet, but turn your attention to these two vendors and ask: "OK, so when are you going to offer office productivity software-as-a-service? Or office productivity tools at a price like this?"

    • Put enterprise policies, standards and governance in place now. Otherwise, people will do their own thing. In many ways, we could go back to the long ago past, when Microsoft wasn't a corporate standard and there were lots of competing word-processing packages floating around inside companies. Be proactive and figure out what your corporate policies are before Google's offering and others like it that haven't yet come to market start making their presence felt in enterprises.

    • Think through privacy and security concerns. Google offers no guarantee that business content including critical corporate intellectual property like spreadsheets and word processing documents are protected from unauthorized viewers. Because content stored on Google's systems is not encrypted, it's theoretically accessible to Google's internal systems administration staff--though Google has internal controls in place to ensure that only certain staff have access to customer data and those who have access must agree on certain constraints to get that access. All an external person needs to access items stored in Google Apps Premier Edition is a username and a password-cracking tool.

    This last point is no different from any other system that is accessible via a username and password--except that with content hosted elsewhere, and someone else (Google) managing it, users would have no easy way of knowing if their accounts were compromised. If you are deeply concerned about this aspect of security, consider running your own authentication system on top of Google Apps Premier Edition.

    Watch out, Microsoft!
    Google presents a very clear and present danger to Microsoft in the messaging and collaboration and office productivity tools market, even though it is positioning Google Apps Premier Edition as more complementary than competitive to Microsoft Office. And what about if Google were to team up with another company--say IBM or Adobe Systems?

    These are interesting times, and Google's advertising-based business model could take off with a new generation of workers who've grown up with ads living among their Internet tools. While Google has a long way to go to bring Google Apps Premier Edition up to par with Microsoft Office--which gives Microsoft some time to respond--enterprises are growing more comfortable with software-as-a-service, IT shops are increasingly strained, and Google will likely provide an offline client to round out its offering.

    © 2007, Forrester Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect judgment at the time and are subject to change.