When I visited Google.org 2 weeks ago in DC (blog here) I managed to get a sneak preview of their new offering, Google Sites, but was unable to blog about it as I’d signed a NDA when I went into the building. Now its been officially launched I am free to share my opinion on this, and Google Apps in general, which I’ve been actively playing around with since I went to the conference.
Firstly, a lot of people on the Internet have been comparing Google Sites to Sharepoint. As a technical architect for 2 large Sharepoint 2007 projects I pretty much know the platform inside out now and can safely say Google Sites is NOT Sharepoint! From playing around with it and talking with the Google engineers at the conference, its pretty much a glorified wiki, originally built by JotSpot, which Google acquired in 2006. While most end users see the collaboration side of Sharepoint, they forget Sharepoint covers all the following areas as well:
That’s business intelligence, business processes such as electronic forms and workflows, and enterprise content management! Google sites has none of these features and to be honest, I don’t see how they could have any of those features in the short term. The features rely on solid enterprise integration with an organisation’s other business systems. Google Apps hasn’t even integrated all their offerings properly themselves (I have to type in URLs linking my calendars and documents to a site!), let alone integrated with external business systems hidden behind firewalls and using different protocols! It is possible for software as a service (SAAS) to integrate with a companies business systems, that’s what web services was designed for and is successfully used by Salesforce.com to provide integration of its software with a companies ERP systems, but nothing appears to be available for that with Google Apps.
There’s also the issue of control over data and security, especially in highly regulated industries. I pushed the engineer on this issue, knowing full well that most CIO’s of large organisations I work with would blow a nerve at the thought of handing their data and security over to another company! Particularly Google, who may not be so faithful to the “Don’t be Evil” mantra they tout. Reading this blog made for some worrying reading, especially around the license agreements Google has in place. Perhaps they just use standard legalese and would never act on it. The Google engineer I spoke to told me they would never disclose a companies information or data unless forced to by a court order, which in that case would also force the company itself to give up data and information on its systems too. He also mentioned that where Google puts its data centres around the world was very important, and they only put them in countries with solid laws to protect their customer’s data. However their legal user acceptance terms and conditions does not reflect this…
But probably the most important thing I haven’t seen much mention of with Google Sites is governance and sharing information across the entire organisation instead of having “information silos”. The current Intranet I am designing on Sharepoint 2007 is to address just this issue for a global organisation spanning over 100 countries and 4500 users. The biggest problem is everyone uses their own local shared drives and seperate tools to collaborate, making it inaccessible to anyone else in the organisation working in similar areas. The number of times you see two or more teams working on the same problem in an organisation is countless, without sharing information across the organisation you end up re-inventing the wheel each time! Also as more information is dumped onto an Intranet, you need solid portal governance to manage that growth and ensure it doesn’t become a victim of content sprawl that essentially makes the Intranet unusable to end users.
For this you need enterprise content management, that allows content types and policies assigning expiration of content after certain time periods to automatically clean up old content, and you need a common platform that everyone can use, browse and search across. Google Sites does not provide the governance tools needed to manage anything larger than a small wiki, and secondly does not provide integrated enterprise content management to manage large volumes of content. It also causes a headache for an organisation like us when Google Apps is marketed directly to end users, by-passing the IT group and its policies. Sure, groups of users will take to it, and start using it for their projects, that’s what has happened with Basecamp here for a while, but that basically means we have another information silo, with people storing work and information on an outside platform that isn’t searchable or accessible to the rest of the organisation! Google may just find that most IT groups block it on their networks if it gets out of control, locking Google out from competing in the Enterprise Office space in the future.
I am aware that Google Apps is only the initial versions of their software, and they have a long way to go before they compete successfully in the enterprise market, but after using it myself now for a couple of weeks, and seeing a lack of rich features on the platform (apart from gmail, but with all their apps, I hate the interface!) I can now understand why Bill Gates was so dismissive of Google Sites, even if he is biased!