Google to reveal Apps enhancements

Expectations are running high for an event Google will hold on Tuesday to announce enhancements to the business-oriented Premier edition of its Apps collaboration and communication suite.

The morning event, to be held in San Francisco, will feature a CIO roundtable and new product demos, which Google is tight-lipped about but which are designed to boost Apps’ appeal among large organizations, according to several people familiar with the plans.

Google Apps, originally aimed at small companies, has many opportunities for improvement in the enterprise area, according to Guy Creese, vice president and research director at industry analysis firm Burton Group.

“I truly hope Google gets its enterprise act together; the competition would be good for the market. However, given that it took them 2-plus years to add [Microsoft Office 2007] OOXML support to Docs, I’m not holding my breath,” Creese said via e-mail.

Google must close the feature-set gap between Microsoft Office and the Docs office productivity software that is part of Apps, Creese said. In addition, Apps needs more IT administration and control features, such as role-based management, where IT defines a set of roles, and then adds end-users to those roles accordingly, he said. The Google suite would also benefit from a records management component, which IT managers would welcome.

Teju Deshpande, vice president of client services at Mindcrest, a provider of offshore legal services, would like to have a database application as part of Apps, as well as better IT administration capabilities.

She would also like to see Google or its partners develop small applications for, say, tracking travel and expenses, as well as better integration between Apps and the Postini communications security and compliance platform Google acquired in 2007.

“If I can avoid leaving my Google Apps domain entirely to get 90 percent of what I need to get done, that would be helpful,” Deshpande said. Mindcrest has almost 700 users of Apps Premier, which costs US$50 annually per user.

Above all, she would like clarity from Google about the future of Apps so that she can plan accordingly. “It’d be great to get a road map for the next three years,” she said.

Others have pointed out that Apps lacks enterprise social-networking features that have become popular in competing collaboration and communication products, such as giving employees Facebook-like profiles and the ability to do Twitter-like microblogging. In fact, there have been rumors about Google being interested in acquiring Twitter.

There are also a number of Google consumer services that might be a good fit for enterprises, such as the blog publishing system Blogger, the Groups discussion forums service and Voice, an application for managing voice communications.

Making more of these consumer services available to Apps accounts would be a welcome move for Kari Barlow, assistant vice president at Arizona State University’s Technology Office, which has about 60,000 unique weekly users of the Apps education edition.

“I’d like to see more of the applications available to the general public also available to the Apps educational domain,” Barlow said in a phone interview, mentioning Blogger in particular.

Dave Girouard, president of Google’s Enterprise unit, which is in charge of Apps, raised expectations for such a move in April when he promised — via Twitter, no less — that Google would make available all of its services to Apps users.

“We’re working to give you access to every damn Google service with a Google Apps account — yep every damn one of them. Um, maybe not Lively,” he wrote in a Twitter post on Tuesday, referring at the end to the 3-D virtual world service Google shuttered recently.

Last week, Girouard promised that Docs will get so much better in the next 12 months that its word processor, spreadsheet and presentation applications will be “night and day from what they are today.”

Whether Docs will really get dramatically enhanced remains to be seen, said Forrester analyst Sheri McLeish, noting that Google could be reacting to Microsoft’s plans to release a major upgrade to Office next year. “Google could be attempting to make a splash and a lot more noise than the feature set necessarily merits,” McLeish said.

Last week, Girouard also said Apps customers will see more effort by Google to attract enterprise developers to its App Engine hosted application development environment, which recently gained Java support and became generally available after a period of limited release.

Google will also continue enhancing the Gmail and Calendar components with improvements aimed at CIOs and IT managers, including the upcoming Apps Connector for BlackBerry Enterprise Server, he said.

In 2006, Google acquired Web and video conferencing software from Swedish company Marratech, which could give Apps a component to better compete against Cisco System’s WebEx. Having Web and video conferencing would be in line with Google’s aspirations to provide a complete collaboration and communication suite with Apps.

“It’s a crowded market, but that’s a testament to the fact that there’s value in a business situation to be able to bring people together with audio and video and be able to look at content and make changes in real time,” Forrester’s McLeish said. “It’s one piece of the collaboration puzzle, and it certainly appears that Google is looking to take a very holistic approach.”

“If Web conferencing was there, we’d definitely use it,” said Darryl Shippy, IT director at Truck Movers in Kansas City, Missouri, where about 45 employees use the free Apps Standard edition.

Google could also improve the features in Docs, particularly the formatting capabilities, which still lag significantly behind Microsoft Office, and a central repository for managing Apps files would also be helpful, Shippy said in a phone interview.

Google is also long-rumored to be building a hosted storage service dubbed Gdrive that could be useful as a single repository for Apps, not only for documents but for other types of content, such as multimedia.

Last but not least, Google recently announced a new collaboration and communication tool called Wave that consolidates features from e-mail, instant messaging, blogging, wikis, multimedia management and document sharing. Although Wave is now only available in early release to developers, the product could eventually find its way to Apps.

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