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I've been thinking a lot lately about the future of online messaging and collaboration cloud-based / software-plus-services / software-as-a-service solutions and how things might play out in the coming years. I've reached a number of conclusions which I would like to share, specifically on the two legitimate options available today for businesses looking to "move into the cloud" for collaboration: Google Apps (Standard or Premier, take your pick) and Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Standard Suite (aka BPOS, and also quite a mouthful).
Where Google Wins - You can share documents in real-time with Google Apps and see what changes others are making. The changes happen right in front of your eyes, it's absolutely amazing and Microsoft does not yet have anything like this....yet! Of course, this is elegantly addressed it in the upcoming release of Office code named "Wave 14" (Office 2010). Microsoft is playing catch up right now (since they don't have anything released which competes currently), however, from what I've seen so far this new release is light years ahead of what Google has to offer. The biggest advantage of Google's approach today is that it is easy to share with the world (all you need is an e-mail address). While this is great and convenient, many organizations consider this to be a security gap. This of course brings us to a much larger and philosophical discussion on Cloud Security, which I'll avoid in favour of keeping this post reasonable in length.
Where Microsoft Wins - The Microsoft Office suite provides a much richer experience for business users. Try to build a decent proposal in Google Docs (I dare you), then get familiar with Word 2007 (or Word 2010, if you like the bleeding edge like me). Try to link that to a data source you have in a spreadsheet (Excel) or database (Access), or embed a diagram or flowchart (Visio). The Google Apps suite is nowhere near complete, and absolutely not a good fit for creating integrated documentation packages involving multiple different components. Google Docs is great if you want to collaborate on very basic documents, and that's why they've done so well with home users, very small businesses and hipsters! Since the gap in requirements between small business and large enterprises is closing, few of our clients have been satisfied with the end-user experience of Google Apps for serious business use.
Where Both Win - You no longer have to purchase or maintain servers, you access and work on your documents for a fixed monthly fee, everything is secure (although this is debatable) and available through your browser. They're both very cost-effective, and while I've heard a lot of complaints that BPOS is not price-competitive with Google Apps Premier, I feel they're both inexpensive when compared with building out similar technology in-house. Building and maintaining technology infrastructure capable of the performance, scalability, reliability and security of a cloud-based solution is nearly impossible, even for the largest enterprises. In terms of total cost of ownership, moving to either option is truly a slam dunk. Just don't expect it to meet all your technology requirements.
From an e-mail perspective, we can't use Microsoft Exchange Online or Google Apps because we have 3rd party applications that integrate directly with Microsoft Exchange, something not supported by either. We have line-of-business applications that need to communicate directly with our e-mail server to perform various advanced functions (e.g. book appointments, synchronize contacts). Unless the software vendor builds support for Exchange Online or Google Apps, we are pretty much forced to host our own servers (or go with a dedicated hosting solution - luckily we have our Canadian Cloud made up of data centers in Vancouver and Kelowna).This is certain to become a non-issue in the future - it's just going to take some time for the 3rd party LOB developers to write their hooks into the Cloud.
We do use Google Apps Premier on a secondary domain. Why, you ask? Aside from the fact that we are a Google Apps Reseller, we have an occasional need to share documents with those outside our organization (e.g. copywriter, web designer) and having them update the documents directly is much better than e-mailing things back and forth. We also occasionally have a need to collaborate in real-time on a document, in which case we either upload/convert a document into Google Apps or we start a fresh one. In both situations, once we're done, we generally export the document out and back onto our corporate network for refining and publishing. We basically use Google Apps as a point-in-time collaboration tool, and this works extremely well for us. Microsoft doesn't have anything *YET* to help with this, although the re-incarnation of Groove as part of Office 2010 will hopefully help us drop the need for Google entirely.
My wife recently started up a clothing business for infants (Playpants), a local company based in Vancouver, BC. She asked me to get her and her two partners setup to be able to have e-mail and share documents. The right solution was obvious: Google Apps Standard. It was free, simple, and would provide her with everything she needs to collaborate in real-time with her partners, developing product marketing materials, pricing, some basic legal documentation, etc. Unfortunately, about 3 months after starting the business a gap arose: the document and spreadsheet editors built into Google Docs were simply lacking the needed functionality - even for a company of 3 people. While Google has done a great job of providing basic e-mail and document hosting service, the time had come (already) where more complex documents were being created and working with these in a feature-poor web-based editor was just not feasible.
I suggest we all sit back and accept the wonderful features of both platforms and watch as these two giants do battle. Google Apps is great for small business (particularly in the creative space), and will probably continue to get more compelling for business over time. Microsoft BPOS / Online Services is better for most businesses, assuming your applications are ready to go 100% Cloud-based. Microsoft has the distinct advantage that they own the business productivity side of the equation - and I don't see many companies walking away from Word, Excel and PowerPoint anytime soon.