Understanding what Google Apps is (and isn't)

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With Google Apps, the idea of sharing, even with basic productivity tools, takes a front and center stage. With Google Docs, for instance, users edit and modify the document online and the changes happen in real time.

Google also recently added social software such as wikis to the Google Apps portfolio. Google Sites, as it's called, allows people in businesses to use the wiki technology (which Google originally acquired from a start-up vendor called Jotspot) to build Web sites and intranets with no programming experience.

As all these tools get thrown into Gadgets and moved across various applications, Sheth believes users can build their business and personal connections more efficiently.

The Google way: Rapid development and release

Like older, more established vendors (think of IBM and Microsoft), Google does offer SLAs and IT road maps (customers and partners must sign nondisclosure agreements to see the details). But Google differs in its approach to software development cycles from older vendors who make major application software changes every year or two. In the Google model, minor changes get made incrementally but happen with greater frequency.

"What we have the luxury to do as a cloud-based platform is to do things iteratively," Sheth says. "Many of our products have two- or four-week cycle increments."

That rapid development and release cycle may be good for Google, but it's not clear how IT departments will like that pace, says Tom Austin, a Gartner Inc. analyst, who notes that Microsoft and IBM will give detailed road maps that look a year or more into the future. "Google, on the other hand, will give a six-month [road map] and they'll talk broadly about 'directions' after that," he says.

Austin notes that this is due to the fast pace of online software development and the fact that Google gets so much feedback from consumers using its products. Even so, Google has been cautious about what features it adds to Google Apps.

"I don't think they are aiming for perfection," Austin says. "They are aiming to avoid a big stinking mistake. They will iterate from release to release. They want to make sure they don't add something that's confusing and turns people off."

One other philosophical adjustment that enterprises must make: Google does just a bare minimum when it comes to offline functionality. Although its Google Gears API yielded an offline mode to Google Docs & Spreadsheets back in April, an offline version of Gmail still doesn't exist for Google Apps users.

Seeing as Google products work best online, the company has turned more of its attention to encouraging the ubiquity of wireless technology. It bid $4.6 billion in the FCC's 700-MHz wireless auction, only to withdraw after making sure the rules required that the winner be open to all devices and accompanying applications (Google Apps anyone?).

The consumer consumes the enterprise

It should seem appropriate that Gmail and later its accompanying Google Apps started as online tools for consumers. After all, Google philosophically has built its search business on the collective intelligence of Web users: If a Web site page is popular and relevant, Google recognizes it and presents it up high in its search results.

Although Google does face the challenges voiced by what analysts describe as IT departments worried about their enterprise data being stored alongside consumer data, Google views its straddling of the enterprise and consumer spaces as a competitive advantage.

Girouard says he talks a lot about this subject with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and describes it as a quest for technological relevance in modern life.

"I spend more time with Larry and Sergey on that topic than anything else: How do you make technology that recognizes that we are consumers and workers all in one person?" Girouard says. "How can I recognize that my life has become increasingly blended? I should have one calendar because I only have one day. What's the point of having separate calendars? I should have one unified view of my life."

Google has been particularly successful in this "blending" with iGoogle, a personalized portal where, using Google Gadgets, people can add widgets that blend both their consumer and enterprise diets. For instance, they might have one widget that displays documents they are editing with colleagues alongside another widget displaying YouTube video or New York Times headlines.

"Getting this right for the user will be incredibly valuable," Girouard says. "We're in a unique position to do that because it's hard for either a pure enterprise company to do that and it's hard for a company that's all in the consumer world to do it."

This story, "Understanding what Google Apps is (and isn't)" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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