Google reacts to Office 365 momentum with beefier Apps suite

It's called Drive for Work, costs twice as much as Apps for Business, and includes unlimited cloud storage for all users

Under pressure from Microsoft's Office 365, Google has launched a premium edition of Apps with unlimited cloud storage and extra IT controls, and has also improved the Docs office productivity suite.

Although this new edition is essentially Apps for Business with an extra set of features, Google has branded it differently, shifting the spotlight from "apps" to storage by calling it Drive for Work.

It's an acknowledgement by Google of the red hot popularity of cloud storage and file sharing services for personal and work documents, like its own Drive, which has about 190 million active home and business users, Microsoft's OneDrive and OneDrive for Business, and similar services from Box, Dropbox and others.

"We're in a market that understands the value of cloud storage and its massive adoption, so it's an important thing to call out right now," said Scott Johnston, Google Drive's director of product management.

Drive for Work and the enhancements to Docs are also a needed competitive reaction from Google to the momentum of Office 365, which, despite arriving four years after Apps, has helped Microsoft quickly recover lost ground in the market for cloud email and collaboration suites.

Office 365 and Google Apps offer email, calendaring, storage, IM, Web-based office software and audio/video communications for businesses, schools, government agencies and nonprofit organizations.

But Microsoft's suite also offers the option of the full-featured desktop Office apps, recently ported to the iPad, and the Yammer enterprise social networking tool, an element Google Apps lacks.

Office 365 is also viewed as clearly stronger than Apps in some areas, including in unified communications with Lync Online and in intranet-type collaboration with SharePoint Online.

A big attraction for Google Apps has been its price -- $5 per user, per month -- which is lower than most of the fee-based editions of Office 365. (Both companies offer free versions of their suites for certain types of customers.)

For example, the Enterprise E3 version of Office 365 costs $20 per user/month, but it comes with the full-featured Office productivity suite, which each user can install on up to five MacOS or Windows computers and five tablets. It also comes with 1TB of OneDrive for Business storage per user and with Yammer's Enterprise edition.

Drive for Work, which at $10 per user/month costs twice as much as Apps for Business, is clearly an attempt by Google to offer an alternative to the higher-priced -- but more sophisticated -- Office 365 options.

Drive for Work includes everything in Apps for Business, but instead of limiting Drive capacity to 30GB per user, it removes that storage ceiling altogether and allows people to save individual files of up to 5TB in size.

"There are no asterisks on the storage," Johnston said. "It's truly unlimited at Google scale. We don't want customers to spend time worrying about storage."

Drive for Work also adds IT management features, such as the ability for admins to control which users can install the Drive desktop sync client. IT admins also get more granular audit features, so that they can more closely track actions users take on Drive files, like moving, deleting or sharing them internally and externally. Drive for Work includes an API (application programming interface) for the audit functionality so third-party developers can access it from their own tools and applications.

Another goody included with Drive for Work is Vault, Google's email archiving and compliance tool, which is available to Apps for Business customers for an extra fee. However, the version of Vault included with Drive for Work has a broader scope beyond email messages: it covers all files stored in Drive.

Drive for Work, like Apps for Business, is intended for businesses. Google will decide later if, as it does with Apps, it offers versions of Drive for Work for schools, government agencies and non-profits.

Google is also revamping Docs, its office productivity cloud suite, which includes word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software, and is available free to individuals with Google accounts and also as part of Google Apps and Drive for Work.

QuickOffice, which Google bought two years ago, has been merged into Docs, giving Docs users native capabilities to open and edit Microsoft Office files created with Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The new functionality is available now when Docs is used on Android devices and via the Chrome browser. Support for iOS devices is coming soon.

Another enhancement to Docs announced Wednesday is the availability of the Slides presentation app for iOS and Android, following the release earlier of the Docs word processor and Sheets spreadsheet apps for those two mobile OSes.

Finally, in order to increase usage of Docs' real-time, multi-user editing capabilities, Google has added a feature called "suggested edits" for changes made by people who aren't the document's creator. These edits will appear in a different color, so that the document's author can consider them. The "suggested edits" feature is available in the word processing app and may be added to the other two later.

It's also now possible for collaborators to add comments about the document on a side column, so that there can be a sort of running conversation among participants.

Overall, the improvements in the suite are aimed at "making Docs, Sheets and Slides easier to use," said Ryan Tabone, Google Docs' director of product management.

Docs was seen as an innovative product back in 2007, but in recent years Google has been criticized by many who feel it hasn't made enough improvements to the suite. Microsoft has also put significant pressure on it with Office Online, a Web-based suite with lightweight versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

Google has also improved Drive for all users by applying end-to-end encryption to files, meaning they're protected from prying eyes while in transit from users' devices to Google and as they move among the company's data centers, as well as while they are "at rest" on Google servers.

Back in March, Google applied this type of encryption to Gmail, saying at the time that a big motivation for providing enhanced protection came from the revelations of government snooping by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Google announced Drive for Work and the Docs and Drive enhancements at its I/O Conference in San Francisco.

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.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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