Like Microsoft, Google's cloud business is divided into IT infrastructure cum platform services and end-user applications. Unlike Office 365, which is a hobbled extension of its Windows software, Google's oft-renamed G Suite started out as a cloud-native set of communication, file sharing and productivity applications.
Initially derided as a poor substitute for the feature-rich (or bloated, depending on your viewpoint) Microsoft Office, Google Apps followed the disruptive innovation playbook to a tee. Start at the low-margin bottom of the market with features good enough for a subset of users at an attractive price. Next follow a trajectory of performance and feature improvements that captures more mainstream users over time.
Where are we now? Google apps have matured to the point of representing a credible challenge to Microsoft for multi-million dollar enterprise deals as touted at its Cloud Next '17 conference.
With G Suite, Google honed its software in the price-sensitive consumer market. Later, it expanded with the help of Chromebooks into the education market where requirements prioritize ease of use, collaboration and security over power-user features and backward compatibility.
Although the 'G' products have long since matured into worthy Office competitors (I've done all my writing on Google Docs for many years), Google hasn't aggressively pursued the enterprise market until recently. No longer. As I discussed last week, at the Cloud Next 2017 event, Google put enterprises squarely in its crosshairs as the company seeks to compete with AWS and Microsoft for both cloud infrastructure and SaaS business.
Let's be clear. Google this is not the first time that Google has pointed in the enterprise direction. Over the years, Google has variously touted enterprise brands as product users but when you scratch the surface, it quickly became apparent that what we were really seeing was Gmail and very little else.
Unlike the barrage of blockbuster news about Google Cloud Platform (GCP), the G Suite announcements were muted. This is partly due to the relative maturity of a product whose core services have been available for a decade and that has long been in a continuous delivery pipeline. Readers might not necessarily be aware, but over the past year Google introduced an average of six new G Suite features and updates a week.
Continual improvements, some large, many small, delivered without user intervention are a hallmark of SaaS products that makes them so compelling, and very few operate that delivery model better than Google. Despite the incrementalism, one can deduce Google's G Suite strategy by the detailed announcements it chose to emphasize at Next '17. Let's review what those announcements mean.
Focusing on real-time collaboration
In common with everyone that has tried to compete with Office, Google realizes that you can't succeed with me-too offerings, but must instead challenge traditional modes of work with products that address today's problems of real-time, remote communication and shared content creation, not those of an office run on paper-based memos and forms.
The core Google Apps suite (Docs, Sheets, Slides) has always excelled in creating and managing collaborative documents, but it has never had a coherent enterprise video conferencing strategy. While it's still a work-in-progress, Google attempted to rectify that shortcoming at the Next event.
Hangouts has always seemed like the red headed bastard stepchild as Google wended its way through various messaging iterations like Allo (text) and Duo (video calling). At Next '17, Google made the messaging strategy more complicated and confused by splitting Hangouts in two, with the new Hangouts Chat designed for group text conversations and Hangouts Meet for video conferencing and screen sharing.
Neither breaks new ground. Chat's team rooms are little more than a modern version of IRC, and join an overly-crowded IM market, but like Amazon with Chime and Lync in Office 365, real-time video communication is a necessary piece of any modern productivity and collaboration offering.
If Google makes good on its promise of "frictionless meetings" that eliminate the lengthy setup and connection process of older online conferencing software, complete with obscure PIN codes and phone menus, it would earn the praise of frustrated meeting goers everywhere.
Hangouts Chat isn't entirely a rehash of older IM clients as it supports conversational bots powered by backend services. To illustrate the potential, Google demoed the @meet bot that automates the scheduling of group meetings by responding to natural language queries (much like Google Assistant) and combing through the connected calendars of proposed meeting participants to find the best time slot within seconds.
Another area ripe for innovation is online brainstorming and graphical collaboration using shared whiteboards. Although online workspaces are nothing new, Google's iteration, called Jamboard significantly improves the technology, resulting in one of the most impressive demos at Next '17. Announced last fall, Jamboard is a $5,000 plus $600 annual maintenance fee connected whiteboard that works with Hangouts to allow sharing both random scribbles and documents in a group video meeting. Remote attendees without a Jamboard can use a mobile app to contribute to the shared board with contents automatically synced to Google Drive.
Today, Google is discounting that nosebleed (for SMB) pricing to $300 provided you sign up by 30th September. Will $5,000 remain as the sticker price? We're not convinced because apart from the SMB price issue, Google has made the fundamental error of assuming a 'one price fits all' approach to all its customers. How, for example does Jamboard pricing work for the growing business? It doesn't.
File sharing improvements
File storage and sharing continues to be one of the most popular and useful cloud services and despite the crowded nature of the market in the shape of Box, Dropbox and OneDrive, there's still room for innovation. Where Box seeks to make itself a content management application platform, Google wants to exploit its search technology and cloud security infrastructure to improve the way organizations share, archive and control information.
One of the limitations of a consumer-oriented product like Google Drive is that the linkage between user identity and file ownership and access rights doesn't reflect the shared nature of information produced by a project or workgroup. The new Team Drive solves this problem by adding flexibility to access control rights and allowing data to be owned by a group, not an individual, something that's been available in network file systems for ages and is table stakes for any enterprise file sharing product.
As file repositories grow, finding information becomes a challenge and no one is better at solving this needle-in-a-haystack problem than Google and Quick Access is its answer for G Drive. The company was light on details at Next other than saying it uses predictive algorithms, past user activity and current context to anticipate the file you want without having to search for it. This is similar to how Omnibox search on Chrome works.
Initially available for Android and iOS Drive clients, Quick Access works with both individual and team drives. Google is also making cloud file access on Windows and Mac work more like it does on Chrome OS with the new Drive Stream feature that obviates the need to download file copies to every device, only streaming the content on demand.
Gmail has long included lightweight e-discovery and archiving features called Google Vault. Recognizing that users keep information in more places than their inbox, Google has extended Vault to include Google Drive (including team drives), Hangout chat history and Google Groups. Vault's features are largely unchanged and include support for data retention rules, legal holds, data export and access reports using Google's standard set of search operators.
Google was eager to show that G Suite is attracting large enterprise customers outside of its corporate base in education and government, with executives from both Colgate-Palmolive (28,000 seats) and Verizon (150,000 seats) sharing their stories at Next '17 keynotes.
However, when pressed during Q&A sessions, each admitted that their choice of G Suite wasn't an all-in replacement of Microsoft Office and that the two products coexist. Instead, their strategy uses carrots rather than sticks by training an early adopter corps of G Suite evangelists that sell its benefits to their colleagues.
While fuddy-duddies won't have Office pried out of their cold, dead fingers, over time their situation will become untenable as co-workers and business processes migrate to the new platform. Having lived through and organized many technology transitions, I know that a persuasive nudging strategy such as this has the best chance for changing old habits and legacy software tools rather than the forced march of transition.
I readily acknowledge that as a long time Google Apps user, I am biased but I do believe G Suite represents compelling product, primarily due to its tight integration with Google Drive, Chrome OS and cloud-native, cross-platform collaboration features.
Still, it's a tough sell for organizations with enterprise Microsoft license agreements where the full suite of Office PC, Mac and online (365) clients runs $20 per user/month. That's double the price of G Suite, but it includes thick PC clients that many users and business processes can't live without.
Google needs to convince businesses that G Suite allows employees to more easily work together wherever they might be through tight integration of collaboration features, including on mobile devices, and backend cloud services like the @meet bot, Vault and DLP service.
By highlighting new add-on support on Gmail, including presentations from Quicken and Salesforce showing how third-party applications can be integrated into Gmail workflows, and its mantra of eliminating and automating mundane tasks from productivity apps, Google seems to understand the challenge.
Like that other famous number two, Google knows that it must try harder. It must also have the persistence to stay with G Suite and not jettison it like some Google X experiment. Without both innovation and commitment, enterprises won't trust Google for their core productivity software and G Suite will indeed turn into a lost cause.
Oh - and did I mention Slack? While we can admire the way Google is improving its competitive position as it relates to Microsoft, we can't ignore the impact that Slack has brought to the collaborative workspace. Anecdotal reports from the field suggest that provided businesses get past the temptation of using Slack as 'yet-another-digital-water-cooler,' Slack is proving its worth as a collaboration platform both internally and among customers' customers and partners. Users that 'get it' are reporting significant productivity gains. Can Google point to the same?