Google gradually assembling Office secret weapons

Google gradually assembling Office secret weapons

Summary: Editors Note: The original headline on this post was "Did you hear the one about how Google Apps doesn’t compete with Microsoft (from Google’s CEO)? Guffaw.

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Editors Note: The original headline on this post was "Did you hear the one about how Google Apps doesn’t compete with Microsoft (from Google’s CEO)? Guffaw." But that was way too long.

There's a side to Google's applications -- hencetoforth referred to as Google Apps -- that most bloggers and critics have never seen or bothered to even try to see (I'll explain these secret weapons in a moment). Most Google watchers have simply gone to something like Google Docs (the word processor) or Google Spreadsheet and have thus rendered their often "la di da" opinions -- particularly in the context of Microsoft -- based on that experience. Judging by the recent performance of Google's CEO Eric Schmidt when on stage at Web 2.0 Expo, you can't help but get the feeling that Google likes it that way. continued below....


 Image Gallery: Want images? Have we got images. In addition to this writeup, we've prepared a gallery of images that shows how Google Apps behaves a bit differently once an organization establishes a private domain for itself on Google's servers. For example, administrators of a private Google Apps domain can set default sharing options for applications like Doc, Spreadsheets and Calendar. These are options that ordinary Google users don't see. The screen shots demonstrate that there could be more to Google's competition with Microsoft than meets the eye (or than Google CEO Eric Schmidt likes to draw attention to,....yet).  

Google CEO Eric Schmidt responded to the question of whether Google's new presentation offering should be thought of as a competitor to Microsoft. Schmidt's response can be heard at the -21:03 timecode in last week's podcast of the Dan & David Show or you can click on my new inline audio on-demand feature here:. Said Schmidt:

We don't think so and the reason is that it does not have all the functionality nor is it intended to have all the functionality of products like Microsoft office. This is really a different way of managing information. It's casual. It's sharing. It's seems to be a better fit to how people use the Web and we think it's an example of one application category on a Web 2.0 framework that we think will be very very successful.

Either Schmidt didn't hear the question, he deliberately dodged it, or it was a tongue in cheek joke (Did you here the one about how Google doesn't compete with Microsoft?). Batelle's question was not if Google's anticipated launch of a presentations offering in the summer (based on its acquisition of Tonic Systems) was a competitor to Microsoft PowerPoint or if Google's slowly coagulating office suite is a competitor to Microsoft Office. Batelle asked Schmidt "Is this a competitor to Microsoft?"

Schmidt is right. As long as you're comparing features, feature for feature, Google's office offerings (word processing, spreadsheet, calendar, e-mail, etc) don't hold a candle to their Microsoft counterparts. So, if you're the sort of user that takes advantage of more than 10 or 20 percent of the features that Microsoft has to offer -- bloat that was largely a product of a reviews driven feature war in the 90's -- Google's offerings are not for you. 

But competition between companies like Google and Microsoft is not about who has the biggest baddest (literally and figuratively) list of features. It's about marketshare and to the extent that the majority of the existing market is well served by 10 percent of the features found in Microsoft Office (a.k.a. 95 to 100 percent of the features found in Google "Office"), the answer to Batelle's actual question -- Is this a competitor to Microsoft -- is an unequivocal yes and Schmidt had to be joking.

Google may argue that its presentation offering isn't a PowerPoint killer. But it will be (especially since it's file-compatible with PowerPoint). Google may argue that Google Calendar and Gmail are not Outlook or Exchange killers. But they are. That's because, from a feature perspective, Google's offerings address the heart of the market. In as much as both Google and Microsoft's offerings do this, there is no possible way that Schmidt can say "We don't don't think so" in response to a question like Batelle's.

So, why did he answer that way? Google is the most passive-aggressive [sic] company I know. It's in the company's culture

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to compete with actions, not words. As long as I've known the managers that work at Google, I've never once heard them position themselves or their offerings as competition to anything (although I'm sure there's record of it happening). Compared to the feature wars of the 90s, that is one thing that has changed. Google has so many other evangelists in the blogosphere voluntarily speaking on its competitive behalf, it doesn't need to draw attention to how or where it compares to or is beating competitive products. For example, see Mozilla and Google -- Exchange Killers at last? (answer: could be). 

But make no mistake about it. Not only is Google going after the very same heart of the market that Microsoft can't afford to lose, it knows it. Why else amass the assets that Google is amassing (which, as of today, now includes a WebEx-killer)? But there's more to the story. What most bloggers, critics, and naysayers don't see is what I'm seeing as someone who runs a business that has registered itself for partitioned usage of Google Apps. Partitioned usage of Google Apps is a special domain-oriented context that's slightly different than what ordinary registered users of Google see if they're using the same apps. After looking at the domain-based context of Google Apps (the real name of "Google Office"), it's clear that Google isn't just starting to organize its offerings into what can best be described as a suite. Google is organizing its assets into what will be one of the most cost effective and easy to use (and administer) Intranet-in-a-box offerings that the industry has seen since Lotus Notes (which relatively speaking, will have turned out to be neither cost effective or easy to use and administer). 

The reason I'm relatively sure Google's plans are sneaking below the radar is because of how many ZDNet readers were unaware of how Google will host your business' e-mail domain at no cost until I wrote about how I'm doing that very thing for my small company (and readers responded). This is not the same as giving all the people in your business an e-mail address like davidberlind@gmail.com. This is the same as Gmail replacing your in-house e-mail servers so that the addresses of your users stay as they were before (eg: you@yourcompanysdomain.com). Publicly, Google advertises that it will do this for up to 25 users, giving each user 2 GBs of e-mail storage for free (way more than most IT departments give their own users at an internally billed rate). The truth is however, if you hit the 25-user limit, all you have to do is ask Google to raise the limit and it will do it for you at no charge. Extra storage per user however will cost you (but who needs more than 2GB?). 

Once you sign your business up for what is essentially a private partition within the Google App complex ("Google AppPlex" anyone?) as I did for my own company, you get an administrative panel and a list of some of Google's other services that I'm not sure anyone else gets to see.  In the case of my company -- the name of this page (as seen below) is called Google Apps for masslabs.com. Continued below....

(....continued from above) And, if you click on the link that says "Add more services", you're presented with a list of additional services (pictured below in an image that was doctored for fit) to attach to your business' private partition, some of whose behaviors contextually adjust themselves to work differently in the private partition context than they do with in the ordinary Google user context (continued below....)

(...continued from above) What's unusual about this list of services (along with the one -- e-mail -- that resulted in the creation of our private Google Apps partition) is how most people will probably never find their way to either of the two pages (here and here) where this combination of services is marketed to businesses (small businesses and enterprises, respectively) as a bundle. For example, try Google's main enterprise page. Even stranger is how, where these bundles are offered, it's not clear that the applications -- all of which are also available to ordinary Google users -- behave a bit differently when attached to a business' private partition. 

Here for example, are some quick observations that I've made in the last couple of days:

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Google Docs (word-processing) and Google Spreadsheets: The part of Google's "suite" that was just refreshed to include charting. Google's spreadsheet and word processing apps follow the quintessential 10/90 (or is that 5/95) rule. They have 10 percent of the features that matter to 90 percent of the market. For ZDNet's whirlwind tour at CES earlier this year, my multimedia wingman Matt Conner and I used Google Spreadsheets and Google Docs to manage our visit to Sin City and from a collaborative point of view, it was like breathing pure oxygen when compared to how you might normally collaborate on a Word document or Excel spreadsheet using e-mail or Microsoft's Sharepoint.

If I added a new row or column or changed the contents in the cell of a shared Google spreadsheet, seconds later, that new row or column or changed cell would appear on Matt's computer on the desk behind me. The same would go for any edits to a shared a document. But, in Google Apps' private partition context, the administrator of a private partition like the one I have setup for my company can configure sharing (Google-style sharing that is) of company documents to be restricted to just those users that are registered to the business' domain (screen shot of this in action, from a full image gallery). Technically, the document can still leak out if a user saves it to his or her local hard drive and then does with the file what they please. But it can't be shared between a user registered to the private partition and a regular Google user the way Matt and I were sharing Google documents.

But wait, it gets better. While sharing documents or spreadsheets between two ordinary users of Google is very pure oxygen-esque in the way it works, sharing documents amongst users of a private business domain within Google Apps is even cooler because Google sets aside a single URL that all users can use -- one that's invisible to the outside world -- to find the company's shared documents. Not all documents belonging to all users appear there. Only the documents to which you have been authorized to edit or view (including your own) are visible. Users must deliberately make their documents and/or spreadsheets editable/viewable (two different access rights) to others through a Google dialog that is both special in the the private partition context, but also needs improvement.

As can be seen from this image in our image gallery, with the click of one button, a document or spreadsheet can be made instantly viewable or editable by anyone in your company. But, on the downside, if you want to invite individual collaborators, you must hand-enter their full e-mail addresses instead of picking them from a directory of users who are also registered to use your company's private domain. 

Google Calendar: In preparation for CES, Matt and I also shared a single Google Calendar (one registered to me). In the world of Google, sharing Google Calendars is just as slick as sharing documents and spreadsheets and it's here that Microsoft and Google are a bit closer in the way group calendaring works with one incredibly big difference. 

In both worlds, just the process of sending an invitation to someone causes that appointment to appear on the invitee's calendar as pending rather immediately. Also in both worlds, you can see the free and busy time of others. The big difference is that to get features like these working in the Microsoft world requires expensive solutions like Exchange Server, locally hosted computers to run that software, and people who know how to set it up and keep it running. In the Google world, all you need is a Web browser and access to Google Calendar. You don't even need access to GMail (I tested this by signing an account up for nothing more than Google Calendar and then I sent that account an invitation and it worked). 

Like Google Documents and Spreadsheets, there's an interesting twist to Google Calendar when it's being run by users that are part of a private Google Apps domain. For starters, like with Docs, there's one URL that can be handed out to everyone in the company who needs to get access to their Google Calendar (and their login ID is their company email address). By the way, these dedicated URLs aren't absolutely necessary. If you're logged into one Google App (eg: e-mail), Google provides single click navigation to the others (calendar, documents, etc.).  As seen from this partial screenshot of the calendar administration options in our image gallery, the administrator of a private Google Apps domain can set the default sharing options and access rights for staff calendar sharing. For example, an administrator can disallow the sharing of all but free and busy times with anybody outside the domain. And then, the administrator can set a default sharing option for calendar sharing within the domain (an option that users can adjust).  

Likewise, for Google Calendar users that are a part of a private partition, the options for calendar sharing are a bit different than for everyday users of Google Calendar. As can be seen from a partial screen shot in our image gallery, domain (a.k.a. private partition)-based users can not only turn off the sharing of free and busy time (with everyone), but also adjust the "within my domain" sharing options between three different settings. 

Is Google Calendar as granular and powerful a shared calendaring system as what Outlook and Exchange have to offer? Or, for that matter, what Lotus Notes has? No. Is it super powerful enough for 90 percent of the world to get by? Considering the cost, ease of use/administration, and the instant availability to any platform because it's browser based, make that 99 percent.

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The Google Start Page: Beginnings of a Google-hosted Intranet portal: As you can tell from my descriptions of the various services that can be attached to a business' Google Apps domain, one of the standard accoutrements to each service (mail, docs, calendar, etc.) are common domain specific-URLs that can be issued to all users in order for them to get access to their services. Once into one of the services, Google generally provides some navigation to get to the others. The existence of four or five app-specific URLs lends itself well to their bookmarking (as I have done) for instant access to whatever app you need. But if you examine the aforementioned list of services that can be attached to a business' private Google Apps domain and try your hand at a little tea leaf reading, you might come to the same conclusion that I did.

One of those services is the Google Start Page. Like the other Google applications whose features change in some important ways once they're being run in a domain-specific context, the Google Start Page bears a striking resemblance to the personalized home page that's available to all Google users. The difference with the Start Page is that it can be centrally programmed and published to all users within a Google Apps domain so as to include a section of un-editable business-specific content as well a section of user-programmable content. Imagine if the super high-priced business portal solutions were hybrid in capability with a standard set of linkage to intranet destinations along user-customizable portions, with the end-result being a personalized portal for everyone in the company. And imagine it costing nothing.

Google's Start Page for domains isn't quite there yet, but how can it not be a matter of time?  By default, it includes snapshots of a users inbox and calendar and can be centrally programmed with standard elements almost exactly the same way Google's Personalized Home Page (for standard Google users) can be programmed.  Businesses can even strip the page of its Google logo, and replace it with the company logo (the same is true of the GMail and Calendar interfaces, but strangely, not of the Google Docs interface), thus creating even more of that intranet portal-like feel. But sadly, there's no simple way to provide one-click access to the other "intranet destinations" like the company's shared Google Apps document repository. I even tried programming one into the Start Page and by the time I published it, all the links broke. You'd think that such an element would be standard (no programming required). Don't worry. It will be. It's not that a little birdie told me. It's just that it makes so much common sense that how can Google not do this?

Longer term, as Google adds more services that can be attached to its business users' domains, Google will have no choice but to make it easier for its Start Page to be the central navigational interface and entry point to what can best be described as a VPI (a Virtual Private Intranet).

And what of Web hosting? Surprise. It's there: With nicely done Virtual Private Intranet provision only being a few product management cycles away, about the only biggie that's left is the hosting of a company's public facing Web site. I wasn't even aware of Google's Page Creator application -- a browser based HTML editor that, for ordinary Google users, can build an entire Web site whose home page ends up being located at http://yoursitename.googlepages.com. In authoring the pages through Page Creator, one can even draw from an incredibly robust palette of pre-programmed gadgets (everything from a clock, to weather, to RSS readers and chat clients), some of which are Google furnished and others of which are from third parties.

But what's most remarkable is that if you dive into Page Creator as the administrator of a private partition in Google Apps, Google will let you reprogram "the site" to respond to your true domain name (eg: www.yourdomain.com) so long as you make the appropriate changes with your DNS registrar (see a screen shot from our image gallery).

You don't have to read those tea leaves too deeply to see where Page Creator could be heading. As the palette of widgets gets to be more and more sophisticated -- for example, widgets that could include everything that's needed to host an online store within a company's own Web site  -- it's not hard to imagine Google becoming the go-to partner for just about any kind of public facing Web presence.

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Conclusion 

I could keep going, but won't. For example, Google Talk has a few of its own extra configuration options when it's being configured for use in private Google Apps domains (that I won't go into) and, while it hasn't gone nearly as far down the path of mobile messaging that Microsoft has, it doesn't look like it has to. Between a Google-developed Blackberry-specific application and "a streamlined version of the Gmail web interface" for non-BlackBerry users, it could be said that Google has the major bases covered when it comes to giving most users what they really need (particularly since GMail is accessible through POP-enabled e-mail clients like those found on many mobile platforms).  Between its mobile extensions for Exchange Server and it's mobile platform (Windows Mobile), Microsoft has indeed delivered the the whole enchilada. But perfect is the enemy of good enough. Microsoft may consider what it has to be damn near perfect. But, what Google has may very well be good enough for everybody else -- especially given the cost.

Speaking of goodness and perfection, there are also some areas of Google Apps where Google doesn't even rate "good" (leaving much to be desired). For example, one of the gadgets you can add to a Start Page (the one with the potential to be the heart of what I've now called the Virtual Private Intranet) is a bookmarks gadget. It's a staple of the Personalized Home Page that ordinary Google users get to add too. But when given the opportunity to add it to my company's Start Page, not only did I have difficulty, I wrongly assumed that maybe -- just maybe -- the bookmarks in someone's personal start page could be tied to Google's Browser Sync service (which I love). After all, Google does keep bookmark data in the cloud under its user's account names. But not only don't the two services (Google's bookmark widget and Browser Sync) connect to each other,  I've so far been unable to establish a Browser Sync account under a user name that goes with my business' domain. It appears to be confused by the fact that the login address is your e-mail address (which is different from how the rest of Google works).  Put another way, collaborative business bookmarking is currently in a very sad state of repair. 

Another critical issue for Google will be security and compliance. To win customers, Google will have to figure out how to ease the minds of people who are concerned with keeping their sensitive data in the cloud. Salesforce.com has clearly managed to overcome this challenge. But I'm also willing to bet that some number of Salesforce.com clients probably don't care enough for it to be an issue. In other words, if someone did manage to break into a Salesforce.com user's customer data, there wouldn't be much there worth stealing or hacking anyway. Google will benefit from the existence of this sort of customer but it will also have to figure out how to deal with customers who are concerned with security. Encryption and multifactor security are very likely in Google's future. Had EMC not scooped up RSA, RSA would probably have been a good match for Google (and an awful blow to Microsoft). But hindsight is 20/20, isn't it?h

Is Google a competitor to Microsoft? Maybe the reason Eric Schmidt said "No" is because the question should have been flipped to read "Is Microsoft a competitor to Google?"

Today, there are so many moving pieces under the Google umbrella that it's impossible to tell when they might all start hanging together in a much more coordinated fashion than they currently do. But, unbeknownst to the casual onlookers who have only dabbled in the public versions of Google's services, the connective tissue needed for them to go beyond "loosely coupled" is very clearly in place. Not only that, but in the Google world, it appears as though documents, spreadsheets and presentations -- while very important -- are not the stuff of franchises. Instead, the network is Google's franchise player and I'm not sure it's even possible to predict just exactly what Google is going have connected under the hood by the time all the cats are herded. But two things are for sure. First, Microsoft has nothing quite like what Google appears to be assembling for business customers (which could explain Schmidt's answer). Second, if Google and Microsoft do end up in the battle royale that many predict is coming, cost will play a role. There again, the two don't come close to competing.

Topic: Google

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