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Google is no longer just a search company. They have been branching out into many arenas largely driven by advertising revenue. They recently announced an office software suite called Google Apps Premier Edition seemingly putting them head to head with Microsoft on the desktop.

The Google announcement comes just as Microsoft begins shipping Office 2007. Is Google trying to unseat Microsoft on the corporate desktop or do they have other plans? More importantly, should you consider making the switch?

Google Apps Premier Edition includes e-mail, instant messaging, word processing, webpage editing, spreadsheets and calendar management. It is based on the free Google Apps that have been available for several months.

Premier Edition costs $50 per year per user and includes 10GB of storage space per user, guaranteed availability and 24x7 technical support. The fee also eliminates the usual Google text-ads.

Accredited educational institutions can get Google Apps Education Edition for free. This version doesn't come with 24x7 support and is limited to 2GB of disk space per user.

In addition to Office 2007, Microsoft offers a service called Microsoft Live that has some similarities to Google Apps. If you look closely, you find that the offerings are really quite different. Microsoft Live is primarily a collaboration tool not an office suite in that it doesn't allow you to create and edit documents on the Web.

Premier Edition includes several tools for system administrators. It allows companies to create a customized home page for its users. This works a lot like Google's public portal page providing a familiar look and feel. Because the applications are hosted by Google, there's nothing to install on the desktop. They just work. This eliminates monthly patches, expensive upgrades and 24x7 server monitoring.

There are tools to help with data migration and user account setup. Instructions are included for integrating Google Mail and Microsoft Exchange so you can continue using your current mail server if you want.

Google has also published guidelines that allow programmers to add functionality to Google Apps. We'll be seeing a variety of add-ons as the word about Google Apps spreads.

Costs for Microsoft Office and Exchange (email) vary widely depending on the optional features purchased and the number of user licenses. While list prices can be several hundred dollars per user, actual prices paid by large corporations are closer to $150-250 per user.

The price difference coupled with the reduced maintenance costs may seem enticing but Google Apps have much less functionality than Microsoft Office. Complex documents and spreadsheets will not look right or operate correctly within Google Apps. Major differences in the areas of graphics, presentation software, and macros will prevent many companies from even considering a wholesale switch.

So what's happening here and should you care?

Google has recognized what many of us already knew. Most users of Office products simply don't need or use all the power available to them. What most of us need are applications that are easy to use and responsive. More importantly, we need information that is shareable and can be accessed from anywhere using a variety of desktop and portable devices.

Google isn't challenging Microsoft Office. Google Apps aren't great but they're good enough. They will redefine how we create, manage and share information. Cost savings, simplicity, portability and ease of management are powerful persuaders.

Google is looking beyond the desktop computer. The future of computing will be defined by smaller devices, anytime, anywhere availability, and simpler software. Google is taking the software business to a whole new battlefield.

If you have a mobile or distributed workforce, Google Apps offers the ability to easily create and share information anywhere in the world. This will be a powerful draw for some workgroups but no new technology is seamless or without risk. There are issues to be aware of and they vary in importance depending on your business and industry.

Information security is an obvious risk. Your documents and spreadsheets will be stored on Google servers not your own. Will they be adequately protected? Inevitably, there will be bugs in Google's code. Is the potential for information theft an acceptable risk for you?

Litigation exposure is another uncharted area. If your company is sued or investigated and a court orders that documents be turned over, what happens? Google will most likely attempt to immediately comply with a court order. Will you be able to stop them while you challenge the court order?

Finally, regulatory compliance will be a major concern for some companies. HIPAA, SOX and other mandates place tight controls on information transfer and storage. Will having the information reside on third party servers put you in violation of one of these mandates?

Technology always presents us with tradeoffs. We want complete freedom in the form of portability and sharing. We also want total security in the form of control and protection. Today's technology does not provide both.

I suspect that many companies will try Google Apps and use them in business areas where the need for freedom outweighs the need for security. The challenge will be to educate users on what kinds of information should be entered into Google Apps and what should not.

Consider Google Apps to be a release 1.0 set of applications. As such, they are an experiment with rich potential and many reward possibilities. Give them a try on a limited basis and see how they affect workgroup productivity but don't throw out Microsoft Office just yet.

Vin D'Amico is Founder and President of DAMICON, your ADJUNCT CIO™. He helps companies avoid the subtle mistakes that cause missed deadlines, lost opportunities and fragile results. He shows them agile approaches that slash risk and cut development time so they get to market 25-50% faster. He helps them carry that momentum into the sales cycle using white papers and case studies that accelerate the selling process.

This article appeared in Vin's monthly Virtual Business column for the IndUS Business Journal in April 2007.

To learn more about how DAMICON can help your business, please take a look at our service programs.

Virtual Business

Virtual Business

This column appears monthly in the IndUS Business Journal.