Although the company doesn't like to position itself as competition to the likes of Microsoft, the announcements made by Google today -- particularly the one about a way for organizations to siphon the e-mail out of any IMAP-compatible server (including Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes) into GMail -- clearly reach into the lion's den in Redmond.
To get a run-down of today's announcements, I recorded a podcast interview with Google director of product management Matthew Glotzbach. To hear the interview, you can press the play button above. Or you can also download it to your desktop and play it at your convenience. The interview is a part of my IT Matters series of podcasts. To find out more about subscribing to these other podcasts in a way that they automatically show up on your PC, MP3 player, or both, check out my how to.
If you could point at a single on-premises solution that has many corporations and other organizations tied to other Microsoft technologies, that solution could very well be Exchange Server (mostly used for e-mail and group calendaring). Without an Exchange server, the need for a bunch of other Microsoft technologies from Windows Server to Active Directory to Outlook and even Windows on the desktop (I know many an Entourage user who isn't happy with their so-called Mac compatibility with Exchange) is easily questioned.
However, moving off of Exchange Server to a substitute is no easy task. The first question is what substitute and why? There are substitutes like Lotus Notes and, more recently, Scalix's on-premises solution that promise to offer improved scalability, better total cost of ownership, or both (claims that some question). But overall, to the extent that one on-premises solution is being swapped out for another, they may not be the game changers to organizations that they promise to be. For organizations that are really ready to re-think their approach to those on-premises solutions, Google today announced a migration tool that in one fell swoop (at least after all the accounts are properly mapped), uses the IMAP protocol to suck all the e-mail out of an IMAP compatible server like Microsoft's Exchange or Lotus Notes and deposit it into an organization's instance of Google Apps.
For organizations, Google Apps is a hosted, branded service consisting of several applications and services that for each subscribing organization, run in a private partitioned context behind what can best be described as a virtual private firewall (where your intranet is essentially hosted and outsider inaccessibility to it is secured by the hoster's firewall). What are the benefits of turning off an on-premises server in favor of a hosted service? Well, keeping those e-mail systems running and performing well are no longer your headache. They're someone else's (in this case, Google's). No more upgrading complicated server software either. As Google adds new features to its services, its customers basically inherit those features without having to do much. Particularly the customers that use the Web-based interfaces (as opposed to local clients like Thunderbird or Outlook).
What are the downsides? Some companies haven't developed a comfort level with keeping their sensitive data -- particularly their e-mail -- anywhere but behind their own corporate firewalls. Additionally, in the case of this announcement, GMail is unlike most other e-mail solutions in that it doesn't use folders as a means of organizing e-mails. Instead, it uses a tagging system that's very much like foldering, but that could take some getting used to. In fact, when migrating accounts from an IMAP-based server to GMail, e-mail that's stored in some folder ends up getting tagged with that folder's name instead. One benefit to this way of organizing emails is that they can be tagged with multiple tags (sort of like being able to store one e-mail in multiple folders). Another problem with GMail is that as e-mail clients go, it can't go into an offline mode. But now that Google has introduced Google Gears (a technology that makes it possible for Web-based applications to work even when the Web is inaccessible), it will only be a matter of time before this problem goes away.
The bottom line on the migration tool announcement is that this is not to be underestimated as a move to win businesses over to the hosted e-mail model and the purveyors (Microsoft and IBM) of the two leading on-premises solutions (Exchange and Notes) are the ones in Google's crosshairs.
In addition to the migration tool announcement, Google also announced some other improvements to its portfolio of apps. One of them is that GTalk now supports multi-person chat. However, the functionality is not yet baked into the downloadable GTalk client. Instead, the capability is only available with the browser-based GTalk widget which, according to Glotzbach is based on Adobe's Flash technology. I gave the new widget a glancing try today and it seemed to work pretty well.
Another welcome addition is what can best be described as the beginning stages of a directory service for users of Google Apps. For example, today, if you want to share a document with someone else in your Google Apps domain, you have to address them with their entire e-mail address even though their domain may be the same as yours. Now, so long as the people you want to collaborate with are in the organization's shared address book, they are addressable by their alias instead of their entire e-mail address.
There were a few other features that Glotzbach taked about. Be sure to check out the podcast to get the complete rundown.