Will Google Apps truly encroach on Microsoft's domain?

Mountain View (CA) - If there's any one element of the Google growth strategy that seems perennially iffy, it's the company's approach to applications. It's almost impossible to know how well the company's Google Pack freeware applications software package, released last January, is faring in the "market," because usually in order to have a market, money has to be transacted. If downloads truly are having an effect on sales of the leading applications software on the planet, Microsoft won't say, probably for good reason.

Generally, the sense to be found in Google's applications play is that it extends the visibility of the Google platform, which makes that platform more attractive to advertisers - and that's supposedly where the real market lies. If Google has to cannibalize one market (software) to empower another one (advertising), then woe to the company that finds itself turned under, no matter its size. But if that's the case, is there as much sense, then, to Google's next step, announced this morning: bundling its mail, instant messaging, calendar, and HTML editor as a kind of makeshift intra-domain collaboration suite called Google Apps for Your Domain, in the same vein as Exchange and SharePoint.

Introduced last April, Google Calendar was designed to let members of the same team share the same schedule, without the pain of using Outlook. Whether it actually counts as a team collaboration tool may require something of a stretch. What's perhaps more intriguing is the least explained element of the package, described as a "simple, Web-based control panel." Here, a domain administrator (you can use the term "domain" as strictly or as loosely as you wish) designates users' access to the various tools, as well as to the Web site built with Google Page Creator.

Its counterpart in the Microsoft realm would be something called Management Console (MMC), which a Windows Server administrator uses for any number of various maintenance tasks, including designating which users have access to what resources. The functions MMC is capable of enabling the admin to perform depend on its installed "snap-ins," which are like Control Panel applets that provide Explorer-like access to tools and settings. If Google is attempting something similar, then it could conceivably be using Google Apps for Your Domain as a method of distributing its control console, with the intention of populating that console with other features later.

The possibility of these other features being added was alluded to in a statement from Google this morning, which included the following: "A premium version of the product is being developed for organizations with more advanced needs." News about availability and pricing (a word not found too frequently in the Google vernacular to date) would come soon, although the statement did go on to say that users who are members or employees of organizations accepted for testing Google Apps for Your Domain will always be free.

Another clue to Google's intentions comes from Dave Girouard, Google's vice president for the enterprise, who wrote this for the company's morning statement: "A hosted service like Google Apps for Your Domain eliminates many of the expenses and hassles of maintaining a communications infrastructure, which is welcome relief for many small business owners and IT staffers. Organizations can let Google be the experts in delivering high quality email, messaging, and other web-based services while they focus on the needs of their users and their day-to-day business."

Girouard could have been referring to Google Calendar, but given its limited horsepower in eliminating the hassles of maintaining a communications infrastructure, that isn't likely.

One huge difference between GAYD (if, indeed, it should ever be abbreviated as such) and similarly flavored offerings from Microsoft is the important element of who's doing the hosting. Although the title says "Your Domain," your corporate information is basically hosted, along with the application, through Google.

Blogger and corporate lawyer Kent Newsome has a comprehension of privacy implications that runs a bit deeper than the layperson's. Yesterday, Newsome wrote:

...Corporate America is not going to embrace online applications and storage for a long time - privacy, security, fear of a bad decision, and confidentiality requirements ensure that. But the more individuals and small businesses that opt for Google's free alternatives, the bigger Google's toehold is - both in the office productivity space and in connection with its master plan to be the keeper of all of our data.

This morning, Don Dodge, a member of Microsoft's Emerging Business Team, made a post to his blog defending his company's established reputation with Office, and drawing a line between Office and the company's current and forthcoming Windows Live Services.

Microsoft Office is the "gold standard" for office productivity applications, and has been for more than 15 years. What are these new startups bringing to the table? Lightweight, web based applications that can be updated quickly, accessed from anywhere with a web browser, and in some cases, built in collaboration tools.

Which is nice, to a limited extent, Dodge argues. Once Microsoft's new Chief Information Architect, Ray Ozzie, gets into the groove - and gets his Groove into Office - Microsoft's Web services, Dodge goes on to imply, its Web services will be leveraged against a strong infrastructure.

Blogger and podcaster Alex Castro was ready and waiting with a response to Dodge:

I don't buy it. The apps [Dodge] points out are things like Customer Manager, but not the basic core functionality that Google is offering. I think he is missing the point. Perhaps MS Office Live comes out with a bunch of great alternatives to what Google is offering. I have a hard time seeing MS doing anything that directly erodes a $10 billion/year revenue stream. Even if they do, how long [will] it take before they actually ship something.

If you're going to extend yourself, Dodge points out, you need to be tethered to something strong. As the same time, Castro says, you can't be tied down to something that used to be strong, but now lies dormant and immobile. After all the argument and analysis dies down, maybe Google will have had the right idea after all.