Can your business run completely online?

Google says Apps powers many small businesses.

The world's richest and most powerful 10-year-old says it can handle far more of your technology needs than you think. Google started almost exactly 10 years ago, and it is making big noise about invigorated Apps and some Googlers called to tell me about the improvements.

If you haven't checked out the collection of applications Google has now, go to Google Apps and see what you've been missing. Everyone knows about search, of course, and most everyone knows about Gmail and Blogger. While fun, Blogger hasn't yet become mission critical for small businesses, but many other Google Apps have.

Gmail certainly falls into the realm of critical business applications, and Gmail works fine for individuals or entire companies that let Google handle mail hosting. You won't even know who's doing it, because those companies use their own domain names for incoming and outgoing mail messages. That is, if they pony up $50 per user per year to let Google handle e-mail, Web hosting, calendars, instant messaging, and standard business applications like word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations.

Individuals can get most of these applications free with Google Apps Standard, but paying the $50 per user per year works out far cheaper than traditionally buying all the applications Google provides. And some big companies are signing up for services like calendar and e-mail, like Genentech and the city of Washington D.C. But Googlers wanted to tell me about their small business customers, which they consider companies with fewer than 100 employees.

How many companies have signed up? Over 500,000 in the past two years for a total of over 10 million active users worldwide.

“We measure success as active users, not just random logins who never come back,” said Rajen Sheth, senior product manager of Google Apps and the man credited with coming up with the Apps idea inside Google. “The majority of our 500,000 companies are small businesses - 3,000 new companies a day are signing up worldwide.”

Why do they sign up? Can Google Docs over the Internet provide as feature rich a word processing or spreadsheet experience as Microsoft Office or OpenOffice?

“Our goal with Docs and others was not to duplicate existing tools,” Sheth says. “Our goal was to rethink applications with collaboration in mind. These tools enable collaboration uses never before possible with other tools.”

Have to hand it to Sheth on that one. Real spreadsheet fans say Excel beats Google spreadsheet in features, but the ease with which you and four of your friends can collaborate on a spreadsheet, each of you in a different part of the world, is a game changer for many companies. Today's distributed work-from-home and work-from-the-road business world demands connectivity and collaboration for white collar workers, and you can't do that with Office or OpenOffice applications running on a desktop.

As Sheth told me, these tools couldn't have been done when Google started a decade ago. Some companies tried pioneering the Application Service Provider market, but the scarcity of high speed data connections and the special software required on the clients doomed the efforts. Today, broadband service of some level (at least low-end DSL) passes about 90% of all households and small businesses. Even more important, the browser grew biceps and can carry much heavier loads.

For those who think “All Google All The Time” computing ends when you step away from your Internet connection, say hello to Google Gears. This fairly new system provides a way to run most of Google's Docs without being actively connected to Google.

Sheth understands some folks remain wary of putting their data in the cloud, but he promises to take good care of it. He won't say how many data centers Google has or where they are, but assures me every byte of Gmail and other data gets replicated inside the primary data center for that user, and to other data centers as well. And security protections are the first part of building a new application, not the last add-on like for some developers.

Could a small company do all its computing using Google, including word processing, spreadsheets, accounting, databases, project management, etc.? Google folks say they have multiple case studies of companies using Google Apps and other services for the majority of their technology needs. Throw in accessing the Internet through the new Google Chrome browser, and you could say that any Software-as-a-Service offering was “reached” through Google. In that case, you could say Google met all your computing needs.

Is that really a good idea, sitting at your desktop and not seeing a character display on your screen until it went hundreds of miles away to a Google data center and back? After all, the keyboard interrupt channel to a central processor and video display adapter is much faster.

Now take that example and consider a young hotshot out with a smart phone, accessing programs, reading data, making minor changes, and coordinating with other young hotshots. The keyboard interrupt channel can't do that, but Google can. And Google is doing it for more than 10 million of your fellow small business workers.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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