by Mielle Sullivan, Janus Networks

One of the bigger stories in the computer tech world for the last several weeks has been Google’s promotion of Google Apps as a business solution. Google Apps (Gmail, Google Docs etc.) have been available to the public, both for free and as a premium level service, since 2007. But this is the first time Google has actively advertised its Apps for business. While most of the press has viewed this campaign as an assault on Microsoft’s home base, Google sees their Apps as something of a complimentary collaboration tool and not necessarily a direct competitor to Microsoft Office.

For the uninitiated, Google Apps are web based, cloud-computing programs that are accessible through any browser. A group can collaborate on a document, a spreadsheet, a power point presentation etc. all through a link. This cuts down on version multiplicity problem that often occur during collaboration. Also, by hosting everything in the cloud and making them as easily accessible as any web page, Google Apps provides a certain permanence, eliminates compatibility headaches and the need for endless software updates.

When I spoke to Andrew Kovacs, Manager of Communications for Google Apps, he saw the Google Apps products as part of a larger trend toward greater worker collaboration facilitated by the web. “A few years ago the emphasis was on individual productivity” said Kovacs. “One person would sit at their cubicle and create something, which they would then send to their boss or team. Now we are seeing much more of a focus on group productivity and collaboration and it is because programs like Google Apps make it easier to collaborate.” When I asked what he thought about Microsoft’s competitive product, Office Live, which is currently in Beta, he said: “When a software giant like Microsoft offers a cloud based solution, we see that as validation to what we have been saying…that the future of computing is in the cloud. We think it is good. We think it will only bring more people online.”

So, what are the downsides to Google Apps? Even though, for many businesses, there are cost and labor time benefits to hosting all their documents and email in the Google cloud, there is some loss of control. Not having your server in-house, but instead controlled by Google means not having direct control or access. For some, that requires a leap of faith. Also the kind of granular email message recovery that IT professionals are used to having on their own servers, comes at an additional cost from Google. Message Discovery, as the product is called, is $25/user/yr for one year of retention, or $45/user/yr for up to 10 years of retention. Meaning if you want to store one year’s worth of data for 8 years, it’s $45. Google believes that for many businesses there is still a significant savings compared to in-house server maintenance costs.

Google also admits, that for some work, Google Apps is not competitive with Microsoft Office programs. Word allows for more formatting than Google Docs. Excel offers more functionality than a Google Docs spreadsheet for complex tasks and number crunching. Google sees its Apps as an easy to use program that will satisfy the basic office document needs of most businesses, but admits more elaborate projects are better served by Microsoft. “We see Microsoft Office as being similar to Photoshop. It’s a great product that has a lot of functionality. Most offices have at least one copy of Photoshop, and we think all offices will always have at least one copy of Microsoft Office.”