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Google Business Apps Shows The Changing Battle For Workers' Desktops

Google, Microsoft, and IBM all want to be the point of entry to people's business lives.
Beyond Price
For GE, the appeal is less about cost and more about easy access to a suite of Web applications, CTO Gregory Simpson said in a statement. P&G, which is also testing Google Apps, is one of the biggest customers of Microsoft's collaborative apps, with a planned rollout to more than 100,000 employees that includes Office, Outlook, and the SharePoint collaboration portal. These aren't companies looking to skimp on functions to save a few dollars. But both would surely welcome another legitimate rival when it comes time to renegotiate contracts.

Google Apps looks like "a great bargain" to Camden Daily, technology director at Prudential Preferred Properties, a Chicago real estate agency affiliated with Prudential Insurance. Staffers and dozens of affiliated agents are using the Google productivity software. "Most agents aren't in the office a lot, so Web-based tools are the perfect way to go," Daily says.

But Google's success in the business productivity software market isn't a lock. Sun's StarOffice and other low-cost office suites with well-heeled backers were touted as Microsoft killers, only to fade. For one thing, Microsoft's Excel is entrenched. Even though Google promises that its Spreadsheet is compatible with Excel files, even converts like Daily aren't about to mess with their Excel backbone. "We have so many Excel documents we'd have concerns about how well things would translate," he says. And most Google apps, including Spreadsheet, can't be used offline unless the data is downloaded to a third-party program, such as Excel or an open source offering.

Google also isn't immune to the security flaws that drive Microsoft users batty. Last week, it came to light that Google Desktop--a collection of downloadable search software and gadgets--is vulnerable to remote attacks that give hackers control of a user's computer. Google issued a patch, but a major security breach in Google Apps could shake the faith of early adopters.

To address some of its shortfalls, Google is partnering with other companies. For $9.95 more per user a year, Postini will provide SEC-friendly e-mail filtering and archiving services. Avaya plans to layer its enterprise-class voice-over-IP tools over Google Apps to create an integrated data and communications offering. "We're giving that a close look," Daily says.

Still, a Web architecture may not work for large, highly regulated companies that require tight control over data, even with partnerships with the likes of Postini, says Wettemann. At SF Bay Pediatrics, CIO Johnson says he's working with Google to address the clinic's regulatory concerns about the online productivity applications.

Google has its problems to solve. But it's also likely to have created a few new ones for the likes of Microsoft and IBM as they all jostle for center stage on workers' desktops.

Illustration by Ryan Etter