Google eyes a home in the enterprise

Later this year, Google will offer a desktop collaboration suite for enterprise users. Will IT shops bite?

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When Google Inc. releases a premium version of its collaboration services later this year, it's hoping to attract corporate customers looking for a low-maintenance option for departments or branch offices.

But the company, a consumer favorite today, will have a big job ahead in terms of convincing IT managers that it's got what it takes to serve the corporate enterprise. Furthermore, there are still a lot of corporations that are not completely sure how these tools will fit into their businesses.

Released Monday, Google Apps for Your Domain is a group of free, hosted communication and collaboration tools such as email, instant messaging and Web authoring tools. The package, which is aimed at small and medium-sized business customers and universities, does not include a word processor or a spreadsheet.

"We are still trying to figure out what tools facilitate collaboration," said George Defenbaugh, manager of global IT programs at Hess Corp., the New York-based energy company. "We know we exchange a lot of email and we are putting in SharePoint, but that's about it."

More to the point, however, is that corporations still aren't clear on how to bottle the concept of collaboration. You can't just install software and expect individuals to collaborate with the snap of the fingers.

"The fact is, collaboration is hard," Defenbaugh said. "You're dealing with people's work habits and behaviors, and the IT organization has limited ability to influence that."

Google is pressing ahead by having a handful of corporate customers test the Google Apps for Your Domain and provide feedback to the company so it can better design its enterprise product, said Matthew Glotzbach, head of enterprise products at Google.

On the plus side, enterprises tired of provisioning collaboration software and hardware won't have to do either when using a service. They only have to provision a user account. Antivirus and antispam will also be handled by Google.

Glotzbach said Google's premium offering will require a paid license. The company is also prepping service and support options for corporations, but he said the company was not yet ready to provide details on those programs.

But experts said they believe many enterprise IT administrators today will have too many concerns about security. They will also have issues about being able to control sensitive data to switch to a hosted product. And IT people will worry about the level of support Google would provide for the service, said Neil Macehiter, an IT analyst at Macehiter Ward-Dutton in the United Kingdom.

One stumbling block is that Google could be a victim of its own success as a consumer company. The perception is that Google is a consumer product, and its strength is in its search technology.

"When big companies are buying, they want to see that a vendor has credibility as an enterprise supplier," Macehiter said. At the moment, few people connect Google with enterprise products.

Glotzbach said the branch office is one place where the service might find some takers. But Macehiter isn't as confident about that. A branch office is usually well integrated to a company's central hub at headquarters and includes IT policies, data backup and restoration and patch management.

"To think that you could break into the branch office without cracking the hub is a bit of a stretch," Macehiter said.

Google's Glotzbach said he understands that this product isn't for everyone, and that it's not a good fit for customers in highly regulated industries. "With large enterprises, this could be a strong complement to desktop apps," he said.

Macehiter also said that because Microsoft already has a foot in the door in most companies, IT managers will likely go there first for additional products. Microsoft has a similar product in beta since February called OfficeLive. Macehiter said he is puzzled that it garnered so little attention compared to Google's release of Google Apps.

But even though Microsoft has been chanting the mantra of "software as a service" for a while now, IT managers continue to resist that trend.

"They fear a loss of control, and there are broader compliance issues," Macehiter said.

Newer regulations call for many companies to keep copies of all email and other communications for up to several years and make them easily accessible in the event of future lawsuits or investigations.

"Very few [software] companies have managed to span both the consumer space and the enterprise space effectively," Macehiter said. "It will be quite interesting to see if they can."

Margie Semilof contributed to this story.

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