Labs for Google Apps: Will enterprises try new features?

By C.G. Lynch, CIO.com |  On-demand Software, Google, Google Apps

As Google takes steps to sell its Google Apps software to companies around the world, competing in a market long dominated by Microsoft and IBM, analysts say the internet giant must change business users' expectations of technological change, speed and development. That fight for hearts and minds could not have been made any more clear this week by the company's launch of Labs for Google Apps, a website where Google Apps users can try new features fresh from Google's engineers.

"There is a widely held belief that technology progress in the enterprise is slow and methodical, that adoption cycles are long, and that experimentation is inappropriate," Gabe Cohen, the Google Apps product manager, wrote in a blog post announcing the feature. "Here at Google we believe that experimentation is a good thing - even in the enterprise space."

But since February, 2007, when Google launched Google Apps Premier Edition, a Web-based software package aimed at businesses, the message Google has tried to convey hasn't always resonated with prospective customers. Though a brute force with consumers on the Web, Google has been dogged with reliability issues for the enterprise edition of Google Apps. Most recently, Google's Gmail service went down for as many as 30 hours for some Google Apps business customers.

"It doesn't reinforce their message that Google Apps is a mission critical application," says Oliver Young, an analyst with Forrester Research. "They aren't doing a good job of showing off high quality enterprise customers and showing that they're happy. Most of the customers they tout are universities."

Google is trying to shore up worries about Google Apps' reliability. Just Thursday, it announced a new service level agreement that guaranteed 99 percent uptime not only for Gmail, but for the other features of Google Apps service as well.

But the main issue for Google might be learning to speak the language of business customers. As the Labs for Google Apps announcement reveals, Google believes that business software development should mirror the consumer market by innovating quickly and soliciting constant feedback from users. Analysts say that strategy, though sound and well-conceived, might not resonate with perspective buyers.

"Normally, 'experiment' doesn't belong when we talk about enterprise software," says Rebecca Wettemann, an analyst and vice president with the Boston-based Nucleus Research. "Google needs to be careful that they don't scare people off."

Google Apps includes Gmail, a calendar, documents (a word processor), spreadsheets, instant messaging and Sites, a wiki-based technology that allows non-technical users to build websites. All of those tools can be accessed for free in a consumer version of Google Apps, which anyone who signs up for a Gmail account receives.

Google Apps for businesses, which the Labs announcement this week pertains to, costs US$50 per user per year. In addition to the features in the consumer version, it has security from Postini (a security vendor Google acquired last year), more storage space per user, technical support and a customized look that includes a company's logo.

If a business customer feels adventurous enough to try Labs for Google Apps, there are three main apps being tested there, including Google Moderator. Moderator essentially allows Google Apps users to ask questions after a meeting and vote on those questions. In theory, questions that get voted up faster could be addressed by management faster.

One question that remains for Google: Will Google Apps business users want to take time out of their day to try the new features?

According to Wettemann of Nucleus Research, users of the consumer Gmail service who are already fans of the product may be more willing. On the other hand, people who have been tethered to Microsoft Outlook and Office for nearly two decades might not be as enthusiastic to test new Google technology.

"If you want broad adoption, you can't assume everyone is comfortable with your paradigm [for software development]," she says. "The people that don't have Gmail don't necessarily get it."

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