For decades, basic office software didn't pose any major questions for IT departments - you bought Microsoft Office, and then worked on keeping it up-to-date, because there simply wasn't much else available that made sense for the enterprise. By the mid-1990s, Microsoft had ruthlessly dispatched competitors like Novell and was essentially unchallenged in the enterprise software market.
Over the past several years, however, Microsoft's dominion over productivity software use at the organizational level has been slowly but steadily eroded, due in large part to the emergence of a new cloud-based competitor, in the form of Google Apps.
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Google asserts that 5 million businesses use Apps, and that the number of re-sellers topped 10,000 earlier this year. The company is also aggressively trying to drum up further business, earlier this month announcing a bonus referral program for existing customers.
Shaw International, a long-standing flooring manufacturer and distributor, is a Google Apps customer, using the product to connect 22,000 employees around the world. The company had been looking for a replacement for its Lotus Notes-based infrastructure since the mid-2000s, according to enterprise technology architecture and planning manager Jim Nielsen.
Initially, he says, Google Apps didn't seem like the complete package.
"Google came onto the radar as an email replacement, but not much else," Nielsen says. "And we watched with great interest, and actually met with Google about their plans" in 2007.
From the outset, Shaw was looking to move to the cloud, according to Nielsen. But other companies - including Microsoft and IBM - didn't impress with their cloud-based solutions at the time. And so the project was delayed. By the time Shaw was ready to pull the trigger, in 2010, the team had it narrowed down to Google and Microsoft, and a cost analysis made Google look like an easy victor.
"What we saw was a stark contrast in additional spend," Nielsen says.
The simple, one-size-fits-all licensing terms appealed strongly to Shaw, as well.
"Imagine an employee base of 22,000 people, trying to figure out what each person's going to need from day to day," he says.
Sept. 1, 2011 saw the deal finalized, and the response from above was positive, Nielsen says.
"Our CIO and the director for IT were in a meeting and the way that they posed it to the executive steering committee was 'are you tired of all the downtime with email?' And everybody was like 'yes!'" he says.
Forrester Research senior analyst TJ Keitt says Google’s rise in the business world has been somewhat delayed by the company’s consumer focus – but adds that that focus may be becoming an asset, rather than a liability.
From the Google perspective, enterprise applications have historically been overwrought, and designed not with a person in mind, but this concept of a 'business user'.
— Forrester analyst TJ Keitt
“From the Google perspective, enterprise applications have historically been overwrought, and designed not with a person in mind, but this concept of a ‘business user," he says. “So they’re unfriendly, they’re hard to use, and they provide capabilities that someone will never actually get to use.”
In contrast, Google Apps was designed with ease of use in mind – what’s more, it has improved since 2007, Keitt says. People are taking another look, due in large part to Google’s productivity offerings reaching a threshold of usability for the enterprise.
It's crucial for organizations making the jump to Google Apps to look before they leap, of course. According to the co-founder and CTO of Synergyse, a Toronto startup that offers training software for new Google Apps users, being organized is crucial.
"The No.1 thing to know when switching to Google Apps is having an effective change management plan," says Majid Manzarpour. "You want to make sure you are covering your communication and rollout strategy effectively, and have a solid training plan and post deployment strategy for handling ongoing changes made to Google Apps."
Manzarpour cites educational institutions as being among the most enthusiastic adopters of Google Apps – unsurprising given that Google’s special version of the service for schools is offered free of charge. At College of the Holy Cross, a small, exclusive undergraduate college in Worcester, Mass., the initial decision was driven by a need to replace a somewhat ad hoc email infrastructure.
“Our solution at the time was this sort of mix of open-source tools, for an email gateway security solution, and that worked sometimes and didn’t work other times,” says the school’s information security officer, David Shettler.
Holy Cross has been a Google Apps user since 2011, having started by porting the roughly 3,000 student body to Gmail, and began transitioning faculty and staff a year later.
“It was a long process – smooth in the sense that we got through it with very few complaints, and everyone got to retain their email,” says Shettler. “We were a bit surprised that the impact was relatively low.”
It was a long process – smooth in the sense that we got through it with very few complaints, and everyone got to retain their email.
— Holy Cross Information Security Director David Shettler
That’s atypical, according to Forrester’s Keitt. “For a lot of organizations, the level of disruption associated with ‘going Google’ in the workforce creates problems - just human disinclination to change, presents a lot of those problems," he says. "Then there's the fact that it just doesn't operate the same as Outlook or Exchange, and the integrations aren't the same."
While a new email setup was the main idea behind the switch for Holy Cross, Shettler says that many other parts of Google Apps are “fantastic.”
“The collaboration stuff is great – we’re seeing an increased usage of it. People didn’t understand it at first – it’s not Word, so there’s a learning curve,” Shettler says.
Part of the reason the switch went relatively smoothly, he adds, is that Holy Cross didn’t completely rip-and-replace where its productivity software is concerned. The school is still a Microsoft customer, partially because Google Docs, according to Shettler, still doesn’t match up well against Office.
“For writing an academic paper, for instance, where you’re using specific citation styles, if you’re conforming to APA citations or whatnot, Google Drive isn’t there,” he says.
Colleges aren’t the only educational institutions using Google Apps, either – The Hannibal, Missouri public school system has been using the service for about three years.
Unlike at Holy Cross, the main concern that Hannibal’s schools hoped to overcome was productivity software fragmentation, according to technology director Patrick Harrison.
“We have Microsoft Office products on many of our computers, but there are various versions, running all the way back to Office 2000. Lots of 2003, lots of 2007,” he says. “Some of them, it’s not so backwards- or forwards-compatible. So as kids make documents and move from classroom to classroom, there was no guarantee that they were going to be able to deal with what they had been creating in an Office product in the very next room they go to.”
Google Docs fixed that problem, unifying documents under a single system and putting them into the cloud, to boot. But the changes didn’t happen overnight, nor did they happen smoothly.
“It was kind of a rough transition,” Harrison says. “It was implemented and information went out to faculty and staff ‘hey, this is here, this is how you use it,’ and that was the end of it. It literally just kind of languished for several months after that and we were off for break for three months.”
It took extensive training and “many, many workshops,” he says, to get teachers to use Google Apps, and it’s only recently that students have started to come around.
“This year is the first year that it’s really been used in the classroom, with the kids. And those teachers that are doing that are seeing a lot of neat things – the kids are very much engaged, they’re interested,” says Harrison. Some classes now turn in assignments via Google Docs, he adds.
The public-cloud architecture of the Hannibal Public Schools’ Google Apps installation is a typical reason cited by businesses that use the framework, according to Keitt.
“We’re at a point where the vast majority of businesses that we survey say that they at least have the intention to put something into a cloud environment,” he says.
Probably Google Apps’ most famous organizational customers, however, have been government institutions. The city of Los Angeles was the first major city in the U.S. to make the switch, but others have since followed suit, including Pittsburgh, Omaha, St. Louis, Des Moines, Orlando, and most recently, Boston.
That city's outgoing CIO, Bill Oates, said in an official blog post earlier this year that 76,000 email accounts had been moved from a "collection" of different on-premise systems to Google Apps.
"Going Google on such a large scale has many benefits. We gained reliability and security compared to our prior configuration of Microsoft Exchange servers, which required extensive upkeep, upgrades and patches," he wrote.
The State of Maryland had similar problems, according to deputy CIO Greg Urban.
"We had 55, 60 different [email] systems in the state – every department was running their own email system, essentially," he said.
This disjointed user base made even the most trivial tasks a headache, he added. For instance, a simple welcome email to all state employees had to go out to each of the dozens of separate email lists used by all the agencies.
“The governor has an open house every year," says Urban. "[And] it was a huge effort to get a mailing list full of mailing lists [together] to get to all the people."
Unlike most other institutional Google Apps users, the state of Maryland elected to make the transition to the new system entirely on its own - eschewing the usual practice of hiring professional consultants.
Urban says that the idea was to force IT staffers to learn the nuts-and-bolts of Google Apps as they went."They [Google] thought we were crazy at first," he says. "They joke that we’d be one of the better Google partners if we weren’t a state agency. We do have so much knowledge of the product and its capabilities."
Google has itself been a good partner, according to Urban.
"They’re not making it up as they go along," he says. “It’s a very robust, well-run infrastructure, and the feature sets just roll out. You get new features and that’s great, because we find, in our state government environment, you end up with a lot of old stuff.”
Email Jon Gold at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.