Execs Weigh in on Collaboration
End users are looking to IT for tools that will help them increase productivity across what in many cases are sharply reduced workforces, but execs are expressing distrust of collaboration tools.
I had a couple of interesting conversations at last week's Midmarket CIO Forum in Orlando concerning Google Apps, specifically the $50-per-user Google Apps Premier Edition (GAPE) that targets enterprise users. At the first peer panel discussion I sat in on, one of the CIOs had purchased GAPE for some of his users in an effort to reduce reliance on Microsoft Outlook and Office. Some folks had adopted Gmail, Google's e-mail client, fairly readily. However, he was having trouble getting them to use other Google Apps, such as Docs and Spreadsheets.
He told me he liked the seemingly "all inclusive" nature of GAPE, compared to what he felt was a lot of incremental expense to gain the collaboration capabilities Microsoft is pushing with the combination of Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010. I heard similar grumblings from other CIOs looking for good reasons to adopt the newest versions of Microsoft software. Many of them are still facing tight budget constraints and haven't found enough to like in the new stuff to convince them to upgrade.
Microsoft has made a darned good business out of getting folks to purchase a number of its products to gain desired capabilities. It's kind of like the cable companies that sell bundles of channels and manage to somehow distribute enough must-have channels among different bundles to convince folks to buy a bundle or two that they otherwise wouldn't want. (That's how it is at our house, anyway.) That certainly appears to be Microsoft's strategy with Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010, as Rob Helm, managing VP of research at Directions on Microsoft, told me when I interviewed him a few months back.
He cited "a lot of new interesting capabilities" that can be gained by using SharePoint 2010 and Office 2010 together, including the ability for users to work simultaneously on content stored in SharePoint. You can attain benefits by deploying Office or SharePoint on their own, perhaps by deploying Office as part of a new desktop and/or laptop standard, for example. But, said Helm:
... A lot of the new capabilities will require you to deploy a bunch of stuff together. For example, to get that simultaneous editing of Word docs, you need Word 2010 and SharePoint 2010. And SharePoint 2010 needs Windows Server 2008 or later and SQL Server 2005 SP3 or later on 64-bit additions.
If you're already a Microsoft shop and you've got the money for upgrades, this scenario might sound great. Or, like the CIO I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post, maybe you'd like to reduce your dependency on Microsoft, for reasons economic or otherwise. You've introduced GAPE to at least some users and are hoping users will adopt it and wean themselves from Office.
I ambled by the Google booth at the Midmarket CIO Forum just as a couple folks were talking to the guy in the booth about it. Like the aforementioned CIO, they were hoping to get more of their employees using more Apps. After they left, I explained I'd heard a similar story from others and asked him if it was a common issue. He told me that while Gmail had traditionally been the entry point for many organizations using GAPE, collaboration was beginning to overtake e-mail as the primary area organizations hoped to address with GAPE.
Google realizes that it won't convert all people to use all of the apps in GAPE all of the time, he said. But the company sees collaboration as its biggest strength. He also mentioned a forthcoming capability to connect Google Docs directly to Office, something I thought sounded like an intriguing proposition.
I didn't have to wait long. Leveraging technology from a company called DocVerse it acquired earlier this year, Google has introduced a plug-in called Cloud Connect for Microsoft Office, which offers the ability to sync and share Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents with Google Docs. ZDNet's Larry Dignan provides some screen shots illustrating how the plug-in works and references that target audience I mentioned earlier: Microsoft Office users who want more collaborative capabilities but don't want to have to spend a lot of money upgrading Office and/or purchasing or upgrading SharePoint. As he writes:
It's no surprise that Cloud Connect works with Office 2003, 2007 and 2010.
And he shares this quote from Jonathan Rochelle, group product manager for Google Docs:
We're targeting the legacy environment that doesn't want to continue to upgrade Office.
Of course Microsoft itself is trying to improve its cloud-based collaboration capabilities with Office Web Apps, which somewhat confusingly are hosted in SharePoint. Helm described to me:
... Microsoft is offering them free on Windows Live, the consumer portal, and companies can also install them in SharePoint. This gives users who don't have the latest version of Office a way to cope with the problem, 'Someone mailed me a file in the latest Office file format, and I don't know what to do with it.' They can at least view it in these Office Web Apps and may even be able to make small changes. The Office Web Apps are not by any stretch of the imagination a substitute for Office, but they do give you a way to cope with new file formats that people didn't have in the previous versions.
Google doesn't have to worry about cannibalizing an existing set of products with GAPE the way Microsoft does with Office. Microsoft's preference appears to be selling licenses for its traditional on-premise software while offering a few cloud options for folks who want more flexibility. I expect that's fine for now, with most business folks strongly attached to their Office apps. (That's why some CIOs I heard from at the conference are having trouble getting their users to try GAPE.) But how long will it remain that way? Rather than making a full-on assault on Office, Google seems content-at least for now-with making small advances into the enterprise productivity software market.