Google, which has steadily transformed itself from a search engine pioneer into a data access, Internet advertising and business application powerhouse, introduced on Feb. 22 its Google Apps Premier Edition at a cost of $50 per account per year.
The Premier Edition adds Google Docs and Spreadsheets; Gmail for mobile devices on BlackBerry; and application-level controls to Google Calendar, Gmail, Google Talk and Start Page applications that the company introduced as a free services starting in August 2006.
While the free applications were initially offered to serve small and midsize companies, the Premier Edition has collaboration and management features that will appeal to companies of all sizes, including large enterprises, said Dave Girouard, vice president and general manager of Googles enterprise group in Mountain View, Calif.
Google Docs and Spreadsheets allow multiple employees to work on the same document simultaneously and the applications keep track of all revisions and edits. The application-level control features allow administrators to set limits on how documents are shared inside and outside an organization.
Google is supporting the apps with a 99.9 percent uptime service-level agreement in which customers will receive credits for downtime. The company is also offering 10GB of storage per user, as well as application programming interfaces to enable data migration, user provisioning, single sign-on, and mail gateway connectivity to allow businesses to customize their e-mail service.
These features are helping to draw interest from large organizations that "have a desire for choice," Girouard said. Google is seeing a "higher level of interest from big company CIOs than we would have expected at the start," he said.
Providing basic business applications, spreadsheets, word processing and e-mail as an online service "is a big opportunity in the market that nobody has taken advantage of yet," he said.
But Girouard denied that the Premier Edition is designed specifically to take market share away from Microsoft Office. Google doesnt believe that enterprise customers will "buy any less Microsoft products" because they decide to use Google Apps. Instead they expect that companies will use Google apps as a supplement to their Microsoft Office applications and to give employees who wouldnt normally have a copy of Microsoft Office on their desktops a chance to use the Google productivity applications online, Girouard said.
Surveys have shown that more than 40 percent of the work force isnt given access to e-mail by their employers, Girouard said. Google Apps could provide an inexpensive way for employers to provide e-mail access to workers in retail or in other industries where people are not normally linked to desktop workstations, he said.
But analysts said that the Premier Edition poses a long-term challenge to Microsoft, which has garnered huge revenues and profits from selling its Office package for hundreds of dollars a copy plus annual maintenance fees.
"This is the first time there is a compelling, low-cost, service-based alternative to Microsoft Office. And although Google isnt positioning this offering directly against Office, thats where it is headed," said Erica Driver, principal analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.