Google offers tools for small business

Google Apps combines mail, calendar, IM

These days it seems like every time Google slaps its logo on a technology, the earth trembles. The company makes no secret of its interest in developing a suite of office productivity tools. Still, the news Monday that Google is launching such a suite for small to midsize businesses will prompt hasty meetings in Redmond and elsewhere.

Google Apps for Your Domain, which debuts in beta, builds on enterprise inroads the search giant has made in the past year, including Gmail for Your Domain and the Google Search Appliance. For now, Google Apps is a modest proposal best suited for smaller organizations: a Gmail account that carries an organization’s domain name, Google’s calendar, IM, and Web page creation software, said Matthew Glotzbach, Google’s head of enterprise products. But Glotzbach didn’t rule out enterpises such as General Motors or Wal-Mart buying into the Google Apps vision some day.

The company is being pragmatic about the time it will take to develop an offering for large enterprises. But Google Apps already has “hundreds of thousands of users” in “tens of thousands” of domains, Glotzbach said.

Michael John Renzi, director of finance and administration at San Jose City College in California, has been using it since the beginning of the year to offer e-mail to its 10,000 students. It took less than two months to create 11,000 accounts that included the school’s domain and logo and were integrated with class calendars and other goodies.

E-mail is the focal point for Google Apps for now, with 2GB of storage per account, online presence detection and the ability to label and search messages. The suite could, however, become more relevant to the enterprise by year’s end, when Google plans to offer a paid version that adds “enhanced” features Glotzbach did not name but that might include migration and compliance capabilities.

It’s too early to tell whether Google’s expanded package will threaten Microsoft’s Exchange and Outlook franchises, but if Redmond is not paying attention, it should be, said Matthew Brown, senior analyst at Forrester. Organizations that choose Google Apps are likely to pass on Microsoft’s Office Live, depriving the company of the opportunity for future upsells.