Google aims for the Office suite spot

Apps offer agencies a low-cost alternative, but some may balk at keeping data off-site

The story had a certain flair. In early March, the chief information officer of the Federal Aviation Administration, David Bowen, was reportedly considering forsaking Microsoft Windows and Office in favor of the Linux operating system and the Web-based Google Apps Premium office suite.

Could this be true? Might an office suite upstart topple the giant of giants? Does a Web-based suite of applications have enough punch to do the job?

Perhaps. Google Apps Premium does offer a strong set of collaborative word- processing and spreadsheet tools, in addition to e-mail and calendar capabilities. 'We built the [applications] from the ground up to focus on collaboration,' said Mike Bradshaw, who leads Google's federal enterprise division. 'They're providing a new type of functionality to the space that people have been looking for.'

However, Bradshaw concedes that Google Apps doesn't offer the full set of tools delivered with Microsoft Office, although he stresses that not everyone needs all the tools.

'Google Apps does provide a solution that will benefit the bulk of the end users,' Bradshaw said. 'Just like in any community you're going to have power users who are going to need a little deeper functionality. But if you really look at Google Docs, Google Spreadsheet, our mail capability, calendar capability ' yes, we provide functionality there that is very appropriate and actually provides more capability in some ways for government customers. I think the real benefit is that the products have been built to focus on collaboration.'

Outside the box

For some agencies and departments, however, solutions such as Google Apps have a fatal flaw: Using a Web-based thin client means an organization's data resides on a third-party server. Many agencies and departments don't like that idea for security reasons.

Without addressing the specific issue of remote storage of data directly, Bradshaw argued that those views could be changing. 'More and more, people are looking to outsource some of the applications or solutions that are taking their focus off their mission,' said Bradshaw. 'I do see that interest in the federal government.'

Steve Gillmer, Microsoft's business manager of collaborative technologies, disagreed. 'The feedback that we're getting from our [federal] customers is that they do want some control' over the location of their data, Gillmer said.

Money isn't everything

The two major reasons Bowen cited for considering a move from Office to Google Apps were cost and compatibility. He cited conflicts between FAA's Lotus Notes system and Microsoft Vista. Gillmer said neither issue is a solid reason to move away from Windows and Office.

'Certainly our customers are looking at ways to drop their costs,' Gillmer said. 'But there are a lot of ways to address that, and software in the big picture is a small portion of the different costs.' He said training and support incur larger costs in most organizations than the cost of the software does. He added that Microsoft is not talking, at least publicly, about moving to a software-as-a-service model that allows users to select specific tools on an individual basis.

Concerning compatibility, Gillmer said compatibility issues always exist with any new release of an operating system. He added that Microsoft works with software developers to reduce incompatibilities and with customers to manage the movement to new operating systems.

Bowen met with Microsoft officials in late March to discuss his impending software choice. 'The feedback I've gotten is that it was an informative and very good meeting,' Gillmer said. 'At the end of the day, I think they're still up in the air in terms of what they're going to do.'

An FAA spokesperson said the agency has not reached any conclusions about its choice of software.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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