Google Apps Premier Edition

Office Killer. That’s what some folks are calling Google’s new Google Apps service, which wraps together Gmail, Google Docs and Spreadsheets, Google Calendar, Google Talk, and other services into a business-oriented package with features like the ability to use your own domain name.

As usual with virtually anything that anyone identifies as a “killer,” the label is pure hype–there are many, many things that Microsoft Office does well that Google Apps doesn’t do at all. I’m guessing that even Google doesn’t think that the service will fell Microsoft Office anytime soon. But its mere existence is probably enough to agitate the Behemoth of Redmond. Call it an Office Annoyer.

Google Apps in its current form may have been announced today, but there’s not much that actually new. The various productivity tools it involves are all extant already, and are also available in free versions. Google has let people with domain names use Gmail as their e-mail solution for awhile, and a free version of Google Apps (under the what-a-mouthful name Google Apps For Your Domain) appeared back in August.

What’s mostly new today is that Google thinks that Google Apps might be good enough for companies to pay for. The basic version will remain free, but Google Apps Premier Edition is a new variant that will cost $50 per user per year. (This product made PCWorld.ca’s 100 best products of 2007. Check out the list.)

Here’s what $50 gets you:• Gmail with your domain name and 10GB of storage (versus 2GB for the free version)• Google Talk• Google Calendar with shareable schedules• a Google Start Page that can include company info• Google Docs and Spreadsheets (the neat hosted word processor and spreadsheet)• Google Page Creator (a very basic Web site designer)• a control panel to manage everything and some sort of hooks into your company’s existing IT infrastructure• mobile access to some functionalit (such as Gmail)• 24/7 tech support (including phone help) and a 99.9 per cent uptime guarantee for Gmail (but not for the other applications)

So who’s using Google Apps? Google’s testimonial page includes some praise from Procter and Gamble, GE, and Prudential, all of who are using or testing it. But it also includes laudatory comments from a couple of sources who aren’t exactly unbiased–Google’s own CTO (who says the company’s using itself to get stuff done) and Salesforce.com’s Marc Benioff (who, along with Larry Ellison and Scott McNealy, is one of the three folks I think of when I think of legendary Microsoft bashers).

When all is said and done, it’s probably easier to come up with examples of organizations that aren’t going to switch to Google Apps than of those who might. The former would include:

Any company that’s staffed by power users. Google Docs and Spreadsheets is neat but very, very basic; both the word processor and the spreadsheet lack features you might want for even pretty basic business communications. And Gmail and Google Calendar don’t exactly add up to a true Outlook rival (although both are easier to use than the equivalent functionality in Outlook).

Any company that’s using Microsoft Office apps that have no counterpart in Google Apps. Such as PowerPoint or Access.

Companies that need true disconnected mobility. The wonderful thing about Google Docs and Spreadsheets is that it’s available on any PC that’s connected to the Internet.

And the worst thing about Google Docs and Spreadsheets is that it’s only available if your PC is connected to the Internet. (The only way it’s a plausible choice for someone who travels with a notebook, really, is if that notebook is equipped with EVDO or another form of wireless broadband. And maybe not even then–on board airplanes, virtually every laptop is a disconnected laptop.)

Anyone who’s proprietary about their data. Google’s terms of service for Google Apps has some alarming boilerplate about the company not being responsible for lost data. Despite that, I think it’s in a far better position to reliably back up and protect data than most small companies are. Even so, I think a lot of organizations will have qualms about sensitive files living on some Google server somewhere.

So who might want Google Apps in its current form? Well, there are certainly scads of workers in the world who really only need basic tools. There are absolutely many companies–especially small ones–for whom $50 a year is a far more appealing pricetag than several hundred dollars for a copy of Microsoft Office. There are definitely corporations who’d rather offload the management of e-mail and other applications to an expert like Google than to worry about them themselves. And there are unquestionably organizations who are adventuresome enough to be willing to be among the first to try dumping Microsoft Office for a Web-hosted alternative.

Whether there are enough of them right now to make Google Office a viable business, I’m not sure…

Of course, Google is one of the few companies on the planet who can cheerfully pour resources into businesses that aren’t viable if it feels like it. And if it’s really interested in pursuing this–rather than simply yanking Bill Gates’s chain–Google Apps could evolve into something interesting.

“Evolve” is the operative word here. Time was when the blogosophere wondered whether a Microsoft Office killer would spring onto the scene without warning one day. At this point, I think it’s safe to say that that’s unlikely to happen. But Google is clearly trying to build an Office rival little by little, step by step.

Back in the 1990s when Microsoft Office appeared, pundits used the word “killer” in conjunction with it, too–as in “Lotus 1-2-3 killer.” t first, it wasn’t But Microsoft kept plugging away, and 1-2-3 did, indeed die. (Technically speaking, 1-2-3 and the other Lotus desktop apps are still alive. But if you can tell me when they last received a meaningful update, I’ll give you a prize.)

Anyhow, if Google is as intent as muscling in on Microsoft’s cash cow (is that a mixed metaphor?) as Microsoft was in overtaking Lotus, Google Apps could indeed become an Office killer. But as with Lotus, it’ll be a long, drawn-out death. And it’ll only happen if Google has lots and lots of patience–and only if it can convince millions and millions of Microsoft Office customers that Google Apps is a better way…

This review is courtesy of PCWorld.ca. For the latest reviews and comparisons on laptops, notebooks, desktops, printers, software, consumer electronics and more, visitPCWorld.ca.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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