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Google Apps: Beta Or Not?

The official word is that Google has dropped the beta tag from Google Apps. Combined with the announcement of a Chrome-based operating system coming out next year, and you can see that the company has tossed a gauntlet northward toward Redmond. However, there's a lot more to being ready for enterprise customers, and market share, than dropping a word off a web page. After all, what's in a name? A whole lot, actually.

As Tom Krazit noted on CNET, it doesn't seem clear exactly what changed in the Apps product family to suddenly make it non-beta:

In truth, it's hard to tell exactly what technical advancements may have prompted the decision to lift the products out of beta. Matt Glotzbach, product management director for Google Enterprise, said the removal of the beta status means that those products have all reached unspecified internal metrics in terms of reliability and usability.But Google does not have a company standard for determining when a beta project has become a more fully formed product: Gmail was in beta for five years. And paying enterprise customers will still be provided with a 99.9 percent service-level agreement now that the products are out of beta. That's the same level of service Google agreed to provide while they were in beta.
It makes me think of the Catholic Church and Vatican II, when suddenly many traditional practices, followed on fear of eternal damnation, were suddenly deemed unnecessary. One Friday, damned for eating meat; the next, hey, it's all good. People like to know that there's some predictability in the world, whether this one or the next.

That's why it will be tough to shake the beta label, which, when prolonged, has the effect of putting a company into the dilettante category. Google is sensitive about the issue. Last week I spoke with Matt Glotzbach, who said:

Obviously, the beta thing is a cloud that hangs over us a bit. The customers who have adopted and are working with us have looked past that. Apps has an SLA [contractual service level guarantee], enterprise support, etc. It's something we've said a couple of times publicly that it's a challenge for the large enterprise.
At the time, he also said that the beta label would be "addressed in the near future." Clearly. And from what I've been hearing lately from users, Google's support and features set have greatly improved. The addition of more robust contact management that I mentioned last week addressed an issue I've heard brought up multiple times. But does any of this really addressing the underlying issue?

Ron Brister, senior manager in charge of worldwide operations for Serena Software, started testing Google Apps at the 800-person company in January 2008. There have been many positives. For example, although Google did have that one well-publicized outage of a couple of hours, maintaining Exchange servers would require a few hours of scheduled downtime a month, and people would complain at times because they didn't want to stop working. "I think going to the cloud and having it managed off-site saves a lot of headache," Brister said. He also says that support has greatly improved over the last nine months when it was once "poor." Ask him whether Google is ready for the enterprise, though, and you get a nuanced answer.

"I think it really depends on the mental fortitude of the company," he says. "If you're not prepared to make a big change in your organization, it doesn't matter if Google has the best support or the weakest support." To be fair, that would be true for any big software change. But regarding the beta tag, Brister said, "I joked around with Google recently, saying you'd probably sell a lot more if you took beta off the page. They said that beta symbolizes Google. I said, 'Yeah, that's great when I'm a consumer, but when I'm a guy in charge of email for a corporation, I like it when changes don't happen.'" Or, as Todd Morris, CEO of BrickHouseSecurity.com, a company with 30 employees and 15 contracts, put it, the product set is still evolving and may be a poor fit for a company "not comfortable with the fact that your menu bar could change one day without any notice."

The problem for Google Apps in the enterprise is not an improvement checklist. It's not even getting companies to trust cloud-delivered services. The gap between Google and many enterprises is cultural. It's a tough one to bridge, but vital if Google ever wants the product set to undertake the mundane task of providing a return on the company's investment. Yesterday, my colleague Michael Hickins wrote that the so-called freemium model works for software. He privately joked that he expected me to take the opposite side, but I'll surprise him: I think he's right. But there's a caveat. To make free software pay, it has to become a way to introduce a more limited feature set of something that, at the high end, has enough of what a niche market wants that it's worth paying for. Forget that, and you end up in the shareware model, in which the vast majority of producers make relatively little.

To date, even with some clear growth in maturity of approach and positive response from many users, according to Glotzbach, Google claims 15 million users, including 1.75 million "business entities," which range from mom-and-pop shops and solo practitioners to sizeable corporations. But of all these, the number of paid seats is in the "hundreds of thousands." In the office productivity space, and compared to Microsoft, that is either a statistical error or a joke. Given how many consumers now expect that software, at least from Google, should be free (particularly when the terms for the standard version still say that the software is for beta testing), the company needs to find that paying niche, otherwise known as the enterprise. What Google must do is show corporate IT departments that change is more than name-deep and that its products will be something they can depend on, come high water or the sudden urge to add a really cool new feature.

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