When Google launched voice and video chat for Gmail Nov. 11 it threw a new dimension into the Web mail application used by more than 50 million users.
What started as a basic compose/send/receive Web mail application in 2004 is looking more like Microsoft SharePoint than it is Microsoft Outlook or Windows Live Hotmail.
Microsoft loyalists will laugh at this proposition and for good reason. By Google’s own admission, Gmail lacks the bells and whistles of SharePoint, that granular functionality that makes the application so endearing to CIOs who have to satiate the appetites of collaboration-hungry knowledge workers.
But adding voice and video chat to Gmail, effectively dropping its own lightweight version of Skype into a Web-based messaging system, is sure to fill the tanks of some businesses, even if they are smaller than the multi-thousand tenant SharePoint or IBM Lotus shops.
eWEEK pointed out as much to Rajen Sheth, senior product manager for Google Apps, during an interview about Gmail voice and video chat recently. Web mail is changing, evolving, and Google appears to be driving it.
However, Sheth also denied Google is going after IBM Lotus Sametime, SharePoint or Cisco WebEx Connect, and is really just trying to upgrade the messaging capabilities in its mail platform.
The key difference, Sheth noted, is that Google is delivering its brand of unified communications through a Web browser, which he said hasn’t been done well at all in the industry yet. Voice and video chat in Gmail signals Google Apps, with Gmail at its core, as the new unified communications and collaboration rival.
But is there some grandmaster plan to sneak in through the backdoor of IT shops and poach SharePoint, Lotus and Cisco customers with Google Apps? Sheth, like other Google Apps executives in his group, denied this. Sheth explained:
Google Docs & Spreadsheets vs. Microsoft Office, Excel
Even so, he admitted voice and video chat, like so many other features that bubble up from Google Apps, was triggered from requests and inquiries from business customers claiming they wanted to live in Google Apps more, particularly in Gmail. Can you make Gmail better than our current own enterprise e-mail system? Yes, Google apparently replied.
Another part of the innovation at Google is what Sheth referred to as the “consumerization” of the enterprise, where normally consumer-facing features and functionality are rendered in a business context.
Voice and video chat are all well and good for a collaboration upstart looking to make noise in the space, but it is Microsoft that still gets to shine its sheriff’s star.
Market researcher HitWise recently looked at stats for productivity applications. Use of Google’s Docs or Spreadsheets in the United States has grown from 2 million unique visitors in September 2007, to 3.2 Million by September 2008.
That 60 percent is impressive growth by any measure except the flame of that candle dulls when compared to the fact that Microsoft boasts 86 million active Word and Excel users in the United States and itself is growing 10 percent year over year in the United States, according to HitWise analyst Jon Stewart.
Stewart stumbled upon some less sensible stats. In looking at the overlap between Microsoft Office users and Google Apps users and found that 80 percent of Google Docs & Spreadsheet users also used Word or Excel during the same month. This, of course, implies that workers are using both. Stewart muses:
If Microsoft customers are just flirting with Google Apps to see what using a Web-based collaboration experience is like, they may well prefer to use Microsoft Exchange Online and SharePoint Online now that they are available to all businesses.
And if HitWise’s research continues to bear this out, Google Apps could be in trouble. How do you think this epic productivity and collaboration software battle will shake out between incumbent Microsoft and Google, the challenger?