Google Raises Ruckus with Apps for Your Domain

The battle for the hearts and minds (and desktops) of computer users reached a new level in late August when Google released Google Apps for Your Domain. Many observers said that the move should clearly put Microsoft on notice. But is the service worth the fuss?

The beta service is aimed at small- to medium-sized businesses. It lets them use free private-label versions of four Google offerings:

  • Gmail – Online email with up to two GB of storage per account, and search tools and instant messaging built right in.
  • Google Talk – An instant messenger that allows audio chat as well.
  • Google Calendar – A simple online calendar offering that lets users organize their schedules and share chosen events (or even entire calendars) with others.
  • Google Page Creator – A WYSIWYG website design tool that lets you create and publish web pages for your domain.

Businesses sign up for the service, answering a few questions. They can choose to use any number of the offerings. For example, if a particular firm is happy with its email but needs a better way to keep track of people and projects, maybe Google Calendar can help. Google would of course be perfectly happy if a business chose to use all four.

If the items in this bundle of business services sound familiar, it’s because they’ve been around for a while. In fact, we’ve reviewed several of them. If you’re curious, you can check out our reviews of Google Talk and Google Calendar. As is also true with Gmail, neither service has completely blown its competitors out of the water, but many users have appreciated certain features (such as Gmail’s huge storage, which left its online email rivals scrambling to catch up when it was first introduced).

Be that as it may, these are pretty standard office applications that you’d expect in any bundle of productivity software. But there are some important differences. A close look at these differences gets to the heart of why many observers are arguing about whether GAYD is a threat to Microsoft Office.

First, you need to “bring your own domain.” You can use many of the standard office productivity applications without even being online (except for email, of course, though even then it’s only necessary for sending and receiving). The whole point of GAYD, however, is that it is hosted online. You can access the services (and the documents you save with them) anywhere there is an Internet connection. That is both good and bad, as I’ll explain in a bit.

Second, there are certain applications missing that we would normally expect to see in an office productivity suite. Where is the word processor? What happened to the spreadsheet? Why isn’t there a basic database application in the bundle? And good heavens, where is the presentation software?

Well, if you’re familiar with Google’s other offerings, you know that many of these parts already exist. For the word processor, there’s Writely, an online word processor produced by Upstartle. Google purchased Upstartle in March of this year. For the spreadsheet, there’s Google Spreadsheets, which we reviewed here at SEO Chat not too long ago. You can check out that review here
 
While Google doesn’t currently seem to be offering something comparable to Microsoft Access, it seems likely that the search engine giant could do it easily enough – perhaps by modifying the code for Google Base. Likewise, Google doesn’t seem to have anything like Microsoft PowerPoint – but then, looking at GAYD this way misses the point, so to speak. As I said at the outset, it isn’t Microsoft Office.

That point is clear enough when you look at what the package actually can do. Have you ever tried to share a spreadsheet or a Word document for editing purposes? It’s uncomfortable at best; real-time collaboration with others not in the same office is practically impossible. Since GAYD is all about being online, however, Google has seen to it that collaborating with someone in a different room (or a different country) is as easy as making sure you are both connected to the Internet.

Taking that into consideration, GAYD is not really trying to compete with Microsoft Office as much as Microsoft Live Services. Indeed, it’s been suggested that many users will take advantage of both Office and GAYD, because Microsoft’s Office suite is currently weak on collaboration features (that is expected to change somewhat with Office 2007). Since Google has deliberately created its products to be reasonably compatible with Microsoft’s, it will make sense for many users to (for example) save an Excel spreadsheet on their own system, but translate it to a Google spreadsheet when they want to collaborate with others.

Okay, we know that many of these Google services work well, or at least have enough of the features that small- to medium-sized businesses would want in an office productivity suite. We know that they even offer features that Microsoft doesn’t implement or implements poorly. That said, there are still some very specific concerns that could make any business think twice before embracing GAYD in the workplace.

First of all, while it’s free, remember that it’s ad-supported. Do you really want to have Google selling ads around your business emails and business data? At the very least, that hardly looks professional (and that’s always a struggle for a small business) – but worse, think about the privacy implications. It’s not exactly comforting. Indeed, certain businesses may not be able to use GAYD at all for that very reason, such as doctors’ offices or small clinics, which have to abide by the strict privacy regulations of HIPAA. Google said that it will be offering a premium version of GAYD soon; presumably, it will charge for the service in return for not including ads.

Second, while Google might be thought of as a cool company, it isn’t exactly known for its customer support. If you’re having a problem with your package, there isn’t a phone number you can call for help. For most businesses, when it comes to mission-critical applications such as email, that simply isn’t good enough.

Third, you’re putting all of your eggs in the Internet basket. The applications only work as long as the Internet is up. While in general that’s not a problem, think about mobile users. If you have a laptop with Excel on it, you can work on your spreadsheets to your heart’s content as long as it has power. For emails, if you have Outlook, they’re downloaded and saved to your machine. But if you’re using GAYD, you must have access to the Internet. That’s getting somewhat easier now, but there are still far too many places where it is difficult or nearly impossible to access the Internet at all, let alone get wireless broadband access (like flying in a plane between meetings, or even in a hotel that hasn’t upgraded yet).

Fourth, speaking of mobile users, there are many devices that simply cannot access GAYD. Blackberry addicts will be sorely disappointed, as will users of Treo and similar devices. Supported browsers include Microsoft IE 5.5 and above; Mozilla Firefox 0.8 and above; Safari 1.2.1 and above; and Netscape 7.1 and above. This leaves out the kinds of browsers that mobile devices use to find their way online.

But let’s not overlook the good points of GAYD either. Remember its target audience; there’s enough functionality here for your average small- to medium-sized business. Especially for those who don’t need a number of the functions available in the Microsoft Office suite, the price is certainly right. And with the services being hosted on Google’s servers, a small company doesn’t need to have someone dedicated to maintaining a suite of office productivity software.

For the record, Google does plan to add the Writely word processor and Google Spreadsheets to GAYD, and to make its online collaboration features work across all of GAYD’s applications (so presumably someone you’re collaborating with could copy one of your Google spreadsheets into a Writely document they’re creating). To make the package more business-friendly, Google plans to include APIs, directory-server integration, guaranteed performance levels, and telephone tech support. Once it’s ready for business, though, you can expect to see Google begin charging a fee for the package.

Remembering that it isn’t an either-or proposition, companies that use GAYD alongside Office for the collaboration features may find themselves lured away from the more expensive package. Indeed, Google reportedly plans to prompt people who send Office documents via Gmail to translate those files into Google’s formats. “That’s a brilliant idea, because it would allow them in a way to shanghai Microsoft’s corporate customers into the Google fold,” observes Tim Bajarin, president of consulting company Creative Studios.

If you’re wondering what Google gets out of all this, it feeds back into the Google advertising machine. Remember, the package as it stands is ad-supported. The more information that Google can get about you (as an individual or part of a company), the more likely it is to be able to serve relevant ads. More relevant ads mean more conversions for Google’s advertisers, which mean more money for those advertisers – and more revenue for Google. It may not be “noble,” but GAYD still provides many users with an option that suits their needs better than Microsoft Office. And having more options is a good thing.

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