Google's Outlook interface a weak nod to corporate reality

By John Fontana, Network World |  On-demand Software, gmail, Google

While Google is in hot pursuit of an enterprise e-mail business, the announced support this week for Outlook as a client interface for Gmail does little to distinguish the vendor from other players chasing top-dog Microsoft.

Google last week unveiled Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook, synchronization technology that supports Outlook as the front end to Gmail. It gives administrators an option to scrap Exchange for Gmail on the back end while allowing users to keep their familiar desktop client.

But it was little more than needed catch-up to a crowded field of vendors offering corporate users alternatives to Exchange, and it was a thin cover-up for the fact that Google had nothing to say about how Google Apps Premier Edition (GAPE) and its recently announced Google Wave might team up to redefine messaging and collaboration.

"[The client] was the limiting factor of Gmail," says Guy Creese, analyst with the Burton Group. "There are some people who like the Gmail interface — universities and their students are in that category — but you have others for which Outlook is ingrained in the way they work and if you take away Outlook you are taking away their security blanket."

Given that fact, many of Google's competitors long ago saw fit to support Outlook as a client in their battle-against-Exchange strategies, including IBM and Novell, and lesser known alternatives such as Alt-N Technologies, CommuniGate, Gordano, Kerio, Mailsite Fusion, Open-Xchange, Scalix and Zimbra.

Outlook integration had been a lingering checkbox Google had yet to fill, but it is only one bit of an enterprise e-mail story that is captivating universities and mostly smaller companies but not larger enterprises.

Forrester Research reports that most inquires it fields are from companies up to 8,000 employees. The interest is mostly around cost savings or business-to-business relationships.

Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook provides synchronization for e-mail, calendar and contacts between Gmail and Outlook/Exchange, which is equal or less functionality than other competitors provide.

Google's previous one-off kluge of integration technologies for Outlook often came under criticism from analysts and Google users alike for being disjointed and slow.

On his blog, Rafael Laguna de la Vera, CEO of Open-Xchange, an on-premises and hosted provider of Linux-based e-mail platforms, called Google's Outlook support "basic."

"People also like mail filters, changing their passwords, the full Outlook experience, as ugly as it may be. We've been there, and done that… . It is quite amazing that big G finally realizes that integration into other foreign platforms is so important, because people are so used to them."

As Google catches up on the front end, it is being caught on the back end.

While Google's data center that hosts Gmail is robust, outsourced e-mail is nothing new and there is plenty of competition from Microsoft with its Business Productivity Online Suite, IBM's Hosted Notes and Yahoo's Zimbra.  

There are also e-mail service providers such as AT&T, HP and EDS. And new to the game is Cisco, who with last year's acquisition of PostPath, is now a provider of cloud-based e-mail services.

Google's current users, however, welcomed the Outlook news.

"We saw Outlook performance as a major hurdle to rolling out Google mail across our enterprise," says Chris O'Connor, IT director at Genentec, Google's largest corporate customer. O'Connor now has 1,000 users on Outlook out of 15,000 Gmail users. He says IMAP was the cause of the performance hurdle. "We have been using the new tool in our sandbox and have come to the conclusion that it looks like a native Outlook experience and the average user does not know what is on the back end. We expect quick adoption when we release this to our enterprise users."

Google is wondering about adoption as well, and how Outlook support will help not only Gmail, but GAPE, the enterprise messaging and collaboration suite Gmail anchors.

Since launching GAPE in February 2007, the company has added SAS 70 Type II certification, built a reseller channel to handle support, added offline capabilities, integrated with Microsoft's Active Directory, and laid out $625 million for e-mail hygiene vendor Postini, which provided the compliance and archiving tools GAPE lacked.

Google also added video features based on capabilities inherited from its YouTube division. And Google's partners are busy ratcheting up GAPE's feature set.

"Google is teeing these things up and knocking them down one at a time and removing enterprise adoption barriers," says Ted Schadler, an analyst with Forrester.

"In doing that, they are saying they are committed to the enterprise."

What they aren't saying is how they plan to deliver something that redefines messaging and collaboration, moves it online, and elevates the result to a must-have for corporate users.

The best innovation effort Google has made to date is its Google Wave package of online communication and collaboration tools introduced last week.

"Wave is going to get into enterprise hands as fast as it can," Dave Girouard, president of Google's enterprise division, said last week during a press conference to introduce Outlook sync. Girouard said users will see Google compress its test model – vetting technology in a prolonged beta stage with consumers.

But he stopped short of what Wave would mean to corporate users once it was delivered.

"My belief is they don't know how Wave is going to reach the market yet," Forrester's Schadler says. "However, I expect to see it in Google Apps at some point. There is no reason for them not to make it a part of [GAPE]."

And when that day comes, Google's best hope is that it will define innovation and leadership and not have the same "me-too" feel as the debut of Outlook synchronization.

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