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Is the Apps Marketplace just playing catchup to Microsoft?

Is the Google Apps Marketplace just over-compensating for Microsoft-envy? It depends on who you talk to. It may not matter much in the long run anyway.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

In the last two days, I've had two very different conversations. The first was with Google's senior product manager for the Google Apps Marketplace, Chris Vander Mey. The second was with Alex Payne, a product manager with Microsoft's MS Online team. Chris was obviously (and, in my opinion, quite justifiably) excited about the launch of the Marketplace. Alex had a very different perspective.

After beginning my reviews of Marketplace products, I posed the following question to one of my PR contacts at Microsoft (yes, they do occasionally speak to me, but mostly because I write the Education blog and in spite of this one):

Can you put me in touch with someone there who might want to comment on the Google marketplace and how it might impact companies' platform choices (i.e., choosing Apps over an MS-centric solution due to the availability of 3rd-party apps, an open web-based platform, etc)?

From my perspective as the technology director for a small school district that has really embraced Google Apps for communication and groupware, the added functionality (and potential for much more) represented by the Apps Marketplace was just one more reason for schools to choose Google Apps over Microsoft's products (whether cloud-based or on-premise). Same goes for me as a (very) small business owner. Take the basic communication, calendaring, and documentation enabled for free by Apps Standard Edition, add a few slick applications from the Marketplace and the sky was the limit. Or at least the clouds were.

Given all those Googly warm fuzzies, it seemed like Microsoft should be at least a little bit nervous, especially for the much sought-after SMB market. Of course, a senior Microsoft product manager isn't going to get on the phone with me and say,

"Gosh, Chris...we're really scared. Ballmer hasn't been seen since the launch of Google Apps Marketplace. We think he might have thrown himself at the feet of Bill Gates and be begging him to come back and save the company from his lack of vision around the cloud!"

However, Mr. Payne was quick to point to what he saw not as a threat but as evidence of the serious holes in Google's offerings. He acknowledged that Google had solid mail and good simple collaboration applications, but why did they need to open up to outside developers? In his words, "Apps really starts to fall down when you want to collaborate outside of your organization." He also pointed to all of the applications in the Marketplace that seek to improve connectivity with Microsoft Office.

Is he right? Does the Marketplace just represent Google's efforts to catch up with Microsoft's offerings? Payne predicted that we would see Microsoft accelerate ahead of Google in terms of productivity in the cloud while Google is still trying to achieve more desktop-application-style fidelity.

I have to say that I think this last piece is a bit too bullish. As Google's Vander Mey pointed out, HTML 5 is going to enable great user experiences across platforms and devices, whether leveraged in native Google Apps or those applications created by partners in the Apps Marketplace. Where Payne saw the Apps Marketplace as a validation of Microsoft's dominance in the enterprise, Chris Vander Mey saw it as a validation of the open Web (and Google's applications) as a powerful platform for development.

In the end, they're probably both correct. Microsoft is pushing hard to extend its productivity and enterprise dominance into the cloud while Google is looking to leverage its extensive, native web platforms. Can Google claim 500 million users of Apps like Microsoft can with respect to Office? Of course not. Nor can they claim Microsoft's 640,000 partners developing software around their desktop offerings or 7000 development partners for their cloud services. Quite frankly, Google doesn't need to; they still own the Web and have a lot to gain by simply finding new ways to monetize their web properties and diversify their offerings around a quickly maturing platform.

The real beneficiaries of all of this, though, are the consumers. As the Microsoft folks pointed out, the cloud allows them to innovate faster and push out new and more valuable products more frequently. Whether you (or your business) choose a Microsoft-centered solution that now has well-implemented cloud integration and tightly coupled productivity and collaboration software (think Office Live Web Apps, Office 2010, and Sharepoint 2010) or you build a business around the web-based collaboration inherent in Google Apps and extend its core functions with cool and useful applications, you win. There just might be room enough in the clouds for both of these cowboys. After all, it isn't a bad thing to get to pick your approach to meeting the needs and requirements of your business.

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