Google unveils Office rival

Pack of online productivity apps includes several Google services, but not Writely or Google Spreadsheets

With Microsoft Office clearly in its long-range sights, Google today launched a package of Web-based productivity apps.

The offering, called Google Apps for Your Domain, comprises Google services that all have seen the light of day: Gmail, Google Talk, Google Calendar, and Google Page Creator.

Notably absent from the menu are Writely and Google Spreadsheets, which respectively provide basic word-processing and spreadsheet functions that would be essential for a productivity suite, a la the more feature-rich Microsoft Word and Excel. Also, Google has yet to unveil an application that could rival Microsoft PowerPoint.

With Google Apps for Your Domain, organizations can tailor the included applications' UIs with their own branding, and they can pick and choose which services to use. Moreover, there's a Web-based management interface through which admins can manage their user account list, set up aliases and distribution lists, and enable the services they want for their domain.  End-users will be able to access their apps from any Web-connected computer.

For the time being, there's one package available: the Standard Edition. Still in beta and free to use, it offers 2GB of e-mail storage per user as well as customer service for admins via e-mail or an online help center. According to Google's announcement, organizations that sign up during the beta period will not ever have to pay for users accepted during that period (provided Google continues to offer the service).

The Standard Edition may meet the needs of mom-and-pop Web sites and other such small organizations, but not larger companies. However, Google says that a premium version of the package is under development "for organizations with more advanced needs. More information, including details on pricing, will be available soon."

Google acknowledges in its announcement that it will eventually reach out for the enterprise, as well as ISPs and universities.

The company's arguments for the benefit of using hosted applications in lieu of an installed software base aren't really new ones: Going with a hosted app can save you money and reduce the amount of time your IT staff has to spend on maintenance.

"A hosted service like Google Apps for Your Domain eliminates many of the expenses and hassles of maintaining a communications infrastructure, which is welcome relief for many small business owners and IT staffers. Organizations can let Google be the experts in delivering high quality e-mail, messaging, and other Web-based services while they focus on the needs of their users and their day-to-day business," said Dave Girouard, vice president and general manager, enterprise, at Google.

Arguably, the same potential drawbacks to relying on hosted versions of business-critical applications apply: You're at the mercy of the company to stay in business, to remain committed to supporting the product, and to maintain uptime.