Despite Challenges, Google Apps on Right Course

Google initiates so many projects and technologies that it’s fair for us to wonder whether the company is fully committed to all of them. Some are trial balloons — not quite shots in the dark, but not yet clearly defined products with specific application scenarios, customers, and target markets in mind.

At this point, now that Google CEO Eric Schmidt is making sales calls on its behalf, Google Apps ought to be considered an offering to which Google is fully committed. The web-based collaboration suite has drawn a growing number of customers, some of whom are willing to pay for it.

In an interview with Steve Lohr of the New York Times, Schmidt and Google co-founder Sergey Brin divulged that nearly two million organizations — government agencies and departments, non-profit organizations, and enterprises — have adopted Google Apps. Counted among that cohort are a few large companies, such as Motorola and Genentech.

So, with the company’s commitment to Google Apps no longer in question, we can turn to the earnest question of how far and how fast Google Apps can go in its quest for enterprise adoption. After all, even with Google’s enthusiastic marketing and unflagging corporate support, Google Apps will meet resistance from prospective customers.

One salient objection to the application suite involves availability. Google has had some well-publicized service outages. Those will have to be severely mitigated and kept to a bare minimum if Google is to make steady progress against incumbents Microsoft Office and Lotus Notes. Whenever these outages occur, one can be sure Microsoft and IBM will call attention to them.

Related to availability concerns are those pertaining to the security of cloud-based applications. Google works hard to implement measures that safeguard the privacy and security of customer data, but it needs to do more if it is to put this issue to rest. The company must redouble its efforts to work closely with security vendors and experts. It needs to see the big picture — and the big opportunity — and any vestiges of a not-invented-here mindset must be swept aside. Reaching out to those with common cause in cloud security is in Google’s enlightened self-interest.

Another factor is market inertia. Basically, customers — their IT departments and application users alike — are comfortable and familiar with their behind-the-firewall servers and desktop applications. As we have all discovered, at one time or another, change can be disruptive and threatening. In this area, Google has done its utmost to make the transition painless and seamless.

Although the New York Times piece mentioned a report from Forrester Research that found only 10 percent of those using Microsoft Outlook said they would be happy to have their e-mail switched, that’s a red herring. As many comments beneath the article pointed out, Google Web Apps supports IMAP and POP email accounts, allowing users to continue using their favorite desktop email clients (including Outlook) if they’re not inclined to switch to a browser-based interface.

Microsoft Exchange would go away, of course, but most knowledge workers wouldn’t care as long as they still had their familiar email clients and could still collaborate effectively with colleagues, partners, and customers.

It will take time for Google Apps to build on its base of early adopters and win over the majority of the marketplace. Still, I increasingly think it’s only a matter of time, that Google’s web-based model will prevail, and that Microsoft and IBM are fighting rearguard actions to preserve diminishing revenue streams from existing franchises. Both incumbents need to formulate strategic plans that go beyond defensive postures, but that’s not easily done by public companies under constant quarterly pressure to “beat the Street.”

With its franchise not under threat — with revenue from search advertising providing a lucrative cornerstone on which to build new palaces of wealth — Google finds itself in an enviable position. Unlike its enterprise-collaboration rivals, Google has little to lose and much to gain.

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