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Google Business Apps Shows The Changing Battle For Workers' Desktops

Google, Microsoft, and IBM all want to be the point of entry to people's business lives.

With the launch of a more business-friendly version of its online productivity applications last week, Google joins Microsoft and IBM in a newly energized competition for office workers' attention.

Google's new offering--Google Apps Premier Edition--features online e-mail, calendaring, messaging, and voice applications, as well as a word processor and spreadsheet. It includes APIs to facilitate integration with a business' other applications, and it lets businesses create a customized home page for single sign-on to all apps. Google's charging $50 a year per employee for the service, including 10 Gbytes of storage for ad-free Gmail, service-level agreements for 99.9% uptime, and 24/7 tech support.

To see why Google has a chance in this market--as well as problems still to solve--look no further than SF Bay Pediatrics, a San Francisco clinic operator. Its staffers tend to share documents using mailboxes, of the wooden and plastic variety. They communicate with physicians outside the clinic by fax. But in December, CIO Andrew Johnson signed up for a trial of Google's online productivity and collaboration tools, and workers dived right in. Among other things, physicians affiliated with the clinic are using the online Google Docs in wiki-like fashion--posting data about new flu vaccines and the like that can be revised and updated by colleagues. "I was surprised at how quickly everyone picked up on this," says Johnson, speaking over the din of screaming babies.

However, there's a big exception when it comes to sensitive information. Because Google's is a hosted service, SF Bay Pediatrics doesn't plan to use it to transmit any documents with patient information governed by HIPAA regulations. In those cases, it'll continue using faxes and other means.

The 2.0 Effect
A growing number of CIOs are discovering what Johnson has: Give workers the kinds of tools many of them routinely use at home to connect with friends and family, and they'll put them to good use in the office. "Everyone now wants to do more and more" with the new Google applications, Johnson says. Google introduced a similar suite aimed at consumers in August. (See story, "Most Business Tech Pros Wary About Web 2.0 Tools In Business")

Johnson helped doctors start working online

Johnson helped doctors start working online
The significance of Google's enterprise launch should be measured not by its current limited offerings--the many gaps include the lack of a PowerPoint-like presentation module and no offline versions--but by the possibilities it creates. Google says General Electric and Procter & Gamble are customers, though neither would discuss how they're using the software.

Microsoft and IBM are attacking this applications market in different ways. Earlier this month, IBM launched Open Client Solution, a hodgepodge of software programs assembled into a desktop suite that can run atop Linux, Windows, or Mac OS. It can include most Lotus Notes and Domino offerings, a free word processor based on the OpenDocument Format, the Firefox Web browser, and Red Hat or Novell Linux operating systems. IBM says it's a response to demand for new desktop options. "Organizations are pulling for this kind of technology; it's not a push on our part," says Ken Bisconti, VP of Lotus products.

Microsoft unveiled Office 2007 in January, placing more emphasis on integration with frequently used business applications such as Siebel CRM. It has enhanced its SharePoint collaboration tools. The upgrades were meant to let companies "create a familiar interface to end users that's a gateway to the back-end infrastructure," says Kirk Gregersen, director of Microsoft's Office team.

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Far less convincing as a business option is Microsoft's Office Live Web software. Products available under Office Live include Web design tools; a Web hosting service; e-mail, calendaring, and online collaboration tools; and a contact manager. "We're enhancing its capabilities every day and always looking at new tools we can introduce," Gregersen says. But at $39.95 per month, the premium Office Live edition is considerably pricier than the Premier Edition of Google Apps. And it lacks Google Apps' all-in-one packaging. Microsoft "has yet to make clear to the business audience what it's doing" with Office and the related Windows Live, says Nucleus Research analyst Rebecca Wettemann. "Until then, companies are not going to look seriously at that."

Price will be the biggest selling point of the Google Apps released last week. Microsoft doesn't publish volume licensing prices for the Enterprise Edition of Office 2007, but the price of a standalone copy of the Professional Edition is $499. Because Google's apps are Web-based, companies also can save on support, Wettemann says. At $50 a license, she notes, "you could buy 1,600 Google Apps licenses for the cost of one IT worker."

Paul McDougall is a former editor for InformationWeek. View Full Bio

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