No big-bang Apps news at I/O, but some announcements merit attention

Improvements to Gmail, Drive, Plus and Hangouts are relevant for Apps customers

Apps, Google's flagship product for enterprise IT, had a minor presence at this week's I/O developer conference, but some announcements at the show and in prior weeks deserve attention from customers of the cloud email and collaboration suite.

Specifically, a string of news about Gmail, Google Plus and Hangouts this month points to an ongoing effort at the company to boost these applications for consumers and, in many cases, also for organizations that use Apps.

"While I/O did not provide any one key announcement [about] Google's enterprise collaboration platform, they have been making several small enhancements over the last few weeks, including remote desktop control for Hangouts, integrated storage between Drive and Gmail, and most notably a revamped look for their social networking platform, Google Plus," Constellation Research analyst Alan Lepofsky said via email.

"It is clear that Google is putting considerable effort into integrating their various tools to provide a far more unified and consistent experience than they previously offered," he added.

At I/O, Google announced new "quick action" buttons in Gmail that pop up in the inbox next to certain messages, letting users, for example, respond to a party invitation with a "yes," "no" or "maybe." These buttons, which will roll out over the coming weeks, are designed to help users manage their email in faster, more efficient ways. Early in May, Google announced a similar feature, the ability for Gmail users to create Google Calendar entries from within their email messages when Gmail detects dates and times in the body text. These improvements are available to Apps customers.

Also related to Gmail, and applicable to Apps customers, Google said at I/O that it is unifying the storage repositories for Google Drive and Gmail. For Apps customers, this means having a single storage bucket of 30G bytes per user. Previously, each user got 25G bytes for Gmail and 5G bytes for files uploaded to Drive for storage. Now they'll have flexibility on how to use the 30G bytes.

At I/O, Google also announced new APIs (application programming interfaces) for adding and customizing features for the Apps IT administration console via a new software development kit. That announcement also builds on one made earlier this month about a revamping of the admin console's interface, giving it a cleaner look and improved navigation. Both moves are aimed at giving Apps IT administrators better and more intuitive controls over their domain users and applications.

Another potentially significant announcement at I/O was that Google has standardized on the Hangouts service for chats, audio calls and video meetings across all Google services and devices. This will replace Google Chat, Google Talk and Google Plus Messenger. The new Hangouts functionality is now in preview for Apps for Business and Apps for Education customers. It builds on an announcement made earlier this month about a new Hangouts application for remote desktop access. That remote access feature lets users control someone else's computer while video chatting with them, which could be particularly useful when helping someone troubleshoot a computer problem.

In addition, an announcement at I/O about improvements to the Google Plus social network, including a redesign of its interface, could be of interest to Apps administrators who have turned that service on for their users. Google Plus isn't officially part of Google Apps, which means it's not subject to the uptime guarantees and other terms that govern the suite's core applications. However, since August of last year, Google has been adding features for Apps administrators and for people who use it at work, and it's expected that at some point Google Plus will be formally added to the Apps suite.

"Inside the enterprise, there's a lot of value in all the Plus features, but there are concerns, the number one being that Plus isn't an official part of Apps for Business," said Tom Austin, a Gartner analyst who attended I/O.

Austin was struck by the fruits of the ongoing efforts at Google, spearheaded by CEO Larry Page, to streamline and unify the company's product roster and provide a consistent, single, integrated cloud experience. "It's one experience, one set of tools. They all work with each other," he said.

Austin also sees great potential value for enterprises in Google's focus on automated "personal assistance" features as provided by services such as Google Now. This type of technology can make workers significantly more efficient, productive and effective, he said.

"It can help them prioritize their day, pay attention to the right things and ignore the toasts popping up on email," he said. "It can help people to focus and concentrate to find relevant information they didn't know they needed to have. I'm thrilled Google is heading down this path."

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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