Google has been busy adding tools and APIs to Google Apps Premier Edition (GAPE), its US$50 per user productivity suite targeted at business, in addition to Web 2.0 tools such as video that put a new twist on collaboration.
The work is far from over, but there is a growing belief that Google has the right model to succeed - delivering the software as a service to corporate users.
Office Web Applications are in private testing and are slated for inclusion with Office 14. Microsoft already has its toe in the water with Office Live Workspaces and with Exchange and SharePoint Online Services.
While the future may hold promise, the current position for GAPE is the role of worthy alternative and not as serious contender to replace Office or other collaboration platforms.
Google, however, may make its mark not by rising to the top of the heap, but by redefining collaboration and carving the most innovative turns around Web 2.0.
"The Google model is not wrong, it is just immature," says Guy Creese, a Burton Group analyst who for years has been tracking Google's efforts to produce online productivity tools. This month he is releasing a report entitled: "Is It Time to Ditch Microsoft Office?"
It is an interesting question because Google isn't lagging for lack of trying.
The company is service-level agreement and is working on an administrative dashboard that shows how its systems are running and their health. The tool comes after a string of outages that crippled GAPE in the past months.
And in November, Google earned its SAS-70 Type II certification, which public companies under the Sarbanes Oxley Act require from their hosting providers.
In addition, Google and its partners are busy ratcheting up the feature set. This includes third parties such as Panorama Software, which has developed a slick - and free - business intelligence tool called Analytics for Google Spreadsheets.
"This is not about replacing, it is about solving old problems in new ways with Google Docs," says Oudi Antebi, vice president of strategy for Panorama. Antebi, who came to Panorama after eight years at Microsoft, says one reason for lagging enterprise interest in GAPE is that many are looking at it as a replacement instead of an extension to what they already have.
Seeing is believing
One example of Google's potential power is seen in the District of Columbia government, which is using Google's productivity suite to foster cost reduction and provide anywhere access, mobile integration and a collaboration platform that evolves on Internet time for its 38,000 employees.
Vivek Kundra, the CTO for the DC government, is blazing such a path with his Google-based projects. He is rumoured to be helping President-elect Barack Obama's transition team work through its technology agenda focused on "cutting-edge technologies to create a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America's citizens."
Kundra's innovations around Google Apps include a video job board, where D.C. hiring managers post descriptions of openings; a wiki built with text and video that explains and solicits participation in DC's procurement process; and his latest project where he has provided a list of contractors DC has hired, the projects they are working on and their pay rates.
"What we have created is transparency," Kundra says. "Taxpayers can hold us accountable."
Kundra also launched Apps for Democracy, a contest to build applications on top of the Google platform using any of the 216 data feeds from the DC Data Catalog, including most recent road-kill pickups.
The contest yielded 47 applications in 30 days at a cost of $50,000. Kundra estimated the price would have been $2.6 million if done using DC's old form of in-house development. Seven of the applications are now running in production.
"This is the power [you get] when you greatly democratise the ability to create, publish and distribute content," Kundra says. "Before, you relied on a massive IT operation with developers, Web editors and writers. Now we shift power to the individual employee."
But Kundra recognises Google Apps also has its weaknesses.
DC still uses Microsoft Office, which he says is better suited for creating complex documents, and he is still waiting for Google integration with Exchange calendars.
Climbing the mountain
One barrier to Google's success is the fact that it is a crowded race to become second fiddle and take a run at Microsoft's dominance.
Since launching GAPE in February 2007, Google has earned $4 million compared with $12.2 billion for Microsoft's Office, according to Gartner. Google won't clarify its number of paid users other than to say it has "hundreds of thousands."
And there are a host of other competitors including IBM Lotus Symphony, Corel WordPerfect Office, OpenOffice.org, Sun StarOffice, ThinkFree and Zoho, as well as lesser known vendors such as Ability Office, Celframe Office, Koffice, GNOME Office and Softmaker Office.
In a study released last month, ClickStream found that the use of free versions of productivity tools such as Google Docs and OpenOffice remains low and that use of Microsoft Office showed no decline.
ClickStream spent six months tracking usage among 2,400 adults using the tools at home and found that 51 percent used Microsoft Office, while only 5 percent used Open Office, 1 percent used Google Docs and 0.3 percent Google Spreadsheets.
ClickStream concluded that "although Google Docs and Spreadsheets have been touted as potential competitors to the Microsoft Office suite, OpenOffice is currently the more likely app to take that position, possibly indicating the value of offline and local processing enabled by installed applications."
Burton Group's Creese says Google provides only rudimentary email distribution lists, lacks the ability to do administration via roles and does not support Office 2007 file formats.
"If you standardised on [Office 2007] you are in trouble," he says. The software also does not translate all graphics from Word documents, supports only a dozen or so fonts, does not provide in-box delegation features and imposes file size limitations when importing documents.
"If you are trying to collaborate on PowerPoint you could hit the limit," Creese says.
He thinks SMBs may be able to go completely to GAPE, but "a large corporation cannot do that. It will always have a mixed environment and you have to worry about these translation issues."
He adds that for Google Apps to take off it has to present new ways of working rather than just making software less expensive. "In the long run, we will see a movement to the software-as-a-service office suite in some form," he says.
Even Google agrees there is work to do.
Google's Sheth would not provide details of coming features for GAPE, but agreed with the list of issues cited by Creese and others. "I think we already have a robust enterprise offering; of course there is more we can do. We are building that list and adding more and more functionality," he says.
The challenge is clear to many.
"Google needs to keep innovating around new ways that people work," says Tony Safoian, president and CEO of SadaSystems, a consulting and development firm that is both a Microsoft and a Google partner. "I can work with five people at the same time on the same spreadsheet and get the work done. That is how people work today. Google needs to continue to move along the lines of the collaborative work environment where people find things in a few seconds instead of hours or days. That is where Google's edge is now."
SadaSystems has made a significant investment in building Google Apps implementations and will continue to move users to the cloud.
"We are betting big on this technology," Safoian says.
Now the question is whether corporate users will bet big on Google and its innovations - or stick with Microsoft as it moves to its hybrid world of software and services.