Gmail pretty much has what it takes to satisfy individual requirements, but Google needs to free Gmail and Google Apps from its own data centers before the enterprise will really sit up and take notice.
Of the all the e-mail clients I've tried-be they Web-, desktop- or mobile-based-Google's Gmail is, without question, my favorite. Gmail interface elements such as conversation grouping and message archiving match the way I like to work, and I appreciate Gmail's points of integration with complementary applications such as calendar, instant messaging, documents and spreadsheets.
My preference for Gmail has developed despite some significant challenges that come with swapping out a traditional application for a cloud-based alternative. No matter how many interesting user interface features it boasts, embracing an application such as Gmail entails introducing a series of potential trouble spots and bottlenecks into your e-mail experience.
Your Web browser must stretch itself to serve as an application host; your link to the Internet becomes more important than ever; and your continued use of the cloud application in question is tied tightly to the operational competence of your provider.
For me, the combination of offline Gmail support via Gears, the escape valve of IMAP, Gmail's mobile device synchronization options and Mozilla's very handy Prism site-specific browser project is covering Gmail's cloud gaps well enough that if I'm giving up anything by tapping Google for my messaging needs, I can't tell what it is.
The trouble is that what's been sufficient to satisfy me-as an individual e-mail and calendar user-isn't necessarily enough to meet the needs of many of the organizations that Google is targeting with its ongoing enterprise software efforts.
Dave Girouard, president of Google's Enterprise operation, has been making the rounds-a few weeks ago at Bank of America's Technology Conference in New York and more recently at a press event in San Francisco-to talk about how Google has been knocking down the enterprise "blockers" I've mentioned, as well as to announce new features, such as Outlook-to-Gmail synchronization.
Perhaps the toughest concern for the Web giant to address is what I'll call the "In Google We Trust" blocker: Will your enterprise data remain secure and reliably accessible in Google's care, both now and in the future? At the Bank of America event, Girouard seemed confident that his company could convince customers that their data would be more secure in Google's data centers than in their own.
In a lot of cases, that may be true, but regardless of how wholly you buy into the cloud concept, or how confident you are about Google's stewardship, it's tough to give up the option of firing your application provider without giving up the application altogether.
Consider the company from which Google is out to snatch share: Microsoft. Exchange Server is available to companies in a range of on-premises flavors, as well as in hosted service incarnations from Microsoft and from a variety of third-party vendors, including Rackspace.
What's more, Exchange Server 2010 is set to erase the second-class status under which non-Microsoft Web browsers have been left to consume Exchange resources through Outlook Web Access.
For Google to provide customers with a similar, or greater, range of provider and deployment diversity, the company would have to free Gmail and the rest of its Apps from Google's data centers-a move that could prove too complicated to manage.
Google's decision to open-source the code for its Twitterlike Jaiku service points toward one possible route for Gmail. As far as I can tell, though, the open-source Jaiku, which Google ported to run on its own App Engine platform, remains linked to Google's data centers.
Gmail may reign among e-mail options as the "free as in beer" king, but if your company prefers to remain unattached from any single service provider, "free as in Exchange" may be your best bet.
Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.