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12 Mar 2007

Computerworld – Google Apps finding a niche in Singapore

By Victoria Ho
ComputerWorld Singapore

Following the Singapore launch of Google’s enterprise web application service in November last year, it stands poised to win users in niche areas, despite the ubiquity of traditional software.

Smaller firms in Singapore with constrained budgets and those with no habits formed by using traditional applications will find Google Apps most appealing.

Springboard Research senior market analyst, Ravi Shekhar Pandey, sees take-up spread across three groups of users in the foreseeable future.

SMBs (small- and medium-sized businesses) in Asia not already using Microsoft Office would want to give this a shot, because they now have an alternative,he said. “Those already using MS Office may wish to incorporate Google Apps for specific tasks which require Google’s sharing capabilities for lighter use.”

Giving Springboard’s own example, he said while the analysts will stick to Excel for its robust features, its sales team uses Google Spreadsheets for “collaborative marketing efforts across offices where we don’t have to crunch a lot of numbers.”

As for large businesses, he sees adoption only from the individual “not any corporate strategies, in effect”.

This might lead to an eventual transition, however. Citing Salesforce’s example of how it was first picked up by a work group, eventually catching on in popularity, Shekhar sees this as a possible way Google might find its foothold through corporate doors. Ravi thinks that Google is still pretty far away from replacing desktop applications, seeing its web applications as a complement to existing systems, if not just a cheaper alternative.

From an Asian perspective, I think you will see two waves’ new user adoption could be higher as many countries are still computerising and Google offers a practically zero-cost alternative, but existing users will probably be slower as they prefer the existing security and features, and they won’t have to deal with bandwidth issues, he said.

Globally, some 100,000 companies have signed on for its paid, premium service. Although Google seems far away, its offering may be just what smaller Asian companies need.

Google Apps Premier Edition builds on the previously released, free web application service hosted on the customer’s domain, and comes bundled with document and spreadsheet editors, in addition to its immensely popular email client and calendar.
The Premier Edition offers 10GB of storage per user and a 99 per cent uptime (for GMail, not the others) guarantee, for US$50 (S$76) a year.

While Google’s advantages lie in its familiarity and brand name, it isn’t robust or secure enough to support a large organisation’s needs. However, smaller cash-strapped companies might find it a boon, and just enough for their needs, wrapped in a very affordable package.

The price is right

Tiong Ting Ming, IT advisor at SMJK (Sekolah Menengah Jenis Kebangsaan), which controls 78 schools in Malaysia, faced a number of obstacles to upgrading its schools’ IT infrastructure. The students wanted a way to share documents, have personal school email accounts and be connected to the school system for homework updates.

But funding was the biggest obstacle. Since the school group’s IT relied on the charity of external parties and organisations, it was not about to upgrade its entire hardware architecture. In fact, Microsoft licences for its Office suite were beginning to be a problem, and the school turned to its open-source counterpart, Open Office, instead.

However, Open Office required computing power they couldn’t spare. SMJK’s computers, mostly Pentium IIIs, were unable to handle the software, either crashing or behaving very sluggishly.

So Tiong turned to Google Apps Educational Edition, a free version giving them 2GB of storage per user and a pledge from Google to supply 200,000 email accounts, after they wrote to Google with a plea.

Tiong estimates these accounts will last the organisation approximately five years. More importantly, he estimates this set-up will cost a mere eighth of an otherwise large expenditure of around US$3 million-US$4 million with a traditional desktop software set-up.

When interviewed, he didn’t seem to think that latency issues were of significant concern. However, his organisation does not require quick response time from its applications. Since the majority of users will be students, who are used to the free GMail, this is likely to be easily accepted.

“In the past, you would have felt something amiss if you didn’t store your document on a physical diskette. But these days, in a networked environment, we are much more accustomed to saving something “invisibly” on a network drive, he said.

What’s the difference between saving it on a network drive and saving it “somewhere” on a server? Students don’t feel it odd; it is just a change in mindset, he said.

Ovum’s principal analyst, David Bradshaw agrees. He said the lingering fear that somehow your data isn’t secure if it isn’t on your systems in your building, is fast growing outdated. He thinks the security one feels with having physical storage is merely artificial since data can still be stolen regardless of where they are stored.

A big user experience shift

It will take time, however, not just to change mindsets about latency and storage issues, but also that of working exclusively on a web application.

Hong Kong-based Sanden Electronic Equipment went through a few teething problems of the same nature when it first started out. Thomas Fung, its engineering manager, recommended a gradual approach to getting the organisation to turn around.

GMail was more popular, compared with the other applications, which were slow on the take-up. Calendar was next, because it was more integrated with GMail’s interface, and only after sometime did the staff use Docs, spreadsheets and the start page.

I expect it takes time to change people’s habit from using desktop software to online software, he said.

Steve Hodgkinson, research director also at Ovum, regards user willingness to move as an evolution issue, saying that Google’s offerings are “designed for a new generation of users who are growing up with always-on broadband and will be comfortable with web applications.”

Nonetheless, he is waiting for Google to step up its game and “evolve over time to plug gaps like presentation software.” He sees that the movement over to web applications might take the form of a phased transition rather than a wholesale dumping of desktop software. Big processor loads such as graphic manipulation and games will remain a mainstay of desktop software, he said.

Best effort won’t cut it

Although Google offers 99 per cent uptime on GMail for its Premier Edition, that’s exactly what it is only GMail. The other applications don’t enjoy the same assurance. When you have problems accessing company documents with no written clause to assure uptime in that respect, this won’t be accessible to the medium- and upward-sized business.

In an interview, Kevin Gough, product manager at Google, explained that the company uses its own products to power its enterprise.

Google already handles billions of dollars of financial transactions. Google itself is a large publicly-traded company and under strong financial scrutiny. We are on the same systems as our customers, the same exact standards and versions, he said.

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