At Interior Dept., Google Apps to co-exist with Outlook, Office -- for now

While the agency chose Gmail for backend e-mail, it will give employees the option of continuing to use Outlook and Office on the desktop

Although the U.S. Interior Department plans to replace its on-premise email servers with Google Apps' cloud-based Gmail, the agency will retain Microsoft Outlook and Office as its standard e-mail client and desktop office productivity software for end users.

The Interior Department's 70,000 full-time employees and 20,000 seasonal workers will have the option to use the Gmail Web interface and Apps' Docs productivity applications, but most people will likely continue to use Office and Outlook as their primary options, at least for the near future. The Interior Department has an enterprise license to use Office and Windows agency-wide.

"We set the standard for the department more than 10 years ago of Outlook for email client software and Microsoft Office for office productivity apps. I don't necessarily see us moving off of that," said Andrew Jackson, deputy assistant secretary for technology, information and business services at the Interior Department.

The reasons behind this decision are varied. There are employees who simply prefer Outlook and Office over the Gmail Web interface and Docs. Others work in remote locations and get on the Internet using slow dial-up and satellite connections, so they find Outlook and Office are better for working under those conditions or when they're offline.

"I'm sure we'll continue to evaluate the process. If we get to a point where we feel comfortable that we can rely on a product like Google Docs, we may choose to go in that direction, but that's further down the road," Jackson said.

What's clear is the Interior Department's intention to move from seven different on-premise Microsoft Exchange and IBM Lotus Domino email systems to a single Gmail system on the backend.

Several other vendors bid for the contract, including Microsoft, which pitched Office 365, its cloud-based email and collaboration suite. Office 365 competes with Google Apps and includes Web-based versions of Exchange, SharePoint, Office and Lync.

However, the combination of Google Apps and reseller Onix Networking got the nod, edging out Microsoft and the others in requirements like software functionality and cloud security.

The Google Apps-Onix Networking tandem, however, still needs to pass a 60-day evaluation process before getting the green light to do the actual implementation. According to Jackson, the evaluation process will not be a formality.

"It's definitely not guaranteed. We are serious about evaluating their capabilities," he said. "We have the opportunity at this checkpoint to say: 'Ok, are they really cutting the mustard?' And if they're not, we'll have to consider alternatives."

Having said that, the Interior Department feels comfortable with its choice of Apps-Onix. The agency will use the Apps for Government edition of Google Apps, which offers special safeguards and compliance with government regulations about data security in cloud-based software.

When the Interior Department first published its requirements for this project, Google objected and sued the agency in 2010, claiming the request for proposal unfairly tilted the scales in favor of Microsoft. Google dropped the lawsuit in September of last year.

The legal turbulence in the end benefitted the Interior Department because it gave it another chance to scan available options in the market, finding that in the interim much progress was made by vendors like Google to address security requirements for government customers seeking cloud-based email and collaboration software, Jackson said.

"When Google withdrew its case last year, we took a hard look at how the market had evolved and realized that the market research we had done two years ago was outdated and that if we were going to operate in good faith and ensure we were considering all the alternatives, we had to start all over again and see what came through the door," he said.

The agency does plan to actively use the audio and video chat tools in Google Apps, as well as its Sites website design application. Google Apps functionality will also be available via mobile devices.

The 7-year contract is worth about US$35 million. Assuming Onix passes the 60-day testing period, the full rollout of Google Apps is expected to be completed before the end of this year.

Microsoft issued a statement this week saying that it has a "positive, longstanding relationship" with the Interior Department and that it is working on a number of enterprise-wide initiatives with the agency.

"Although we are disappointed by this award, we will engage with our partners and DOI to review and understand the reasons for this decision," the company said.

Meanwhile, Google said in a statement: "We're honored that the Department of the Interior has selected Google Apps for Government, and we look forward to working closely with the DOI to give employees new communication tools."

Microsoft, historically the leader in workplace email, productivity applications and collaboration software with its Outlook and Office desktop software and on-premise Exchange, Lync and SharePoint servers, now finds itself battling Google and others as customers switch to cloud-based options.

Critics have said that it took Microsoft too long to come out with a viable alternative to Google Apps. Office 365 began shipping in final form in mid-2011, while Google Apps has been on the market for several years. The Office 365 predecessor, Business Productivity Online Suite, didn't have Office applications and its versions of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync were based on the 2007 editions of those products.

For Microsoft, it's crucial that Exchange, SharePoint, Lync and Office make a successful transition to the cloud-based model. Thus the company is pushing Office 365 hard, in what has become a fierce battle primarily against Google Apps for customers of all sizes -- from small businesses with fewer than 25 employees to large companies and government agencies with more than 100,000 end users.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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