Google unwraps Apps partner program

For some companies, the SaaS model is a way of isolating a move from unpredictable costs

Google on Wednesday detailed a new program under which resellers can now offer Google Apps to businesses -- effectively meaning that companies considering the alternative to Microsoft Office don't have to go it alone. But the search giant has yet to prove its strength in supporting a partner ecosystem that could bring enterprises much needed assurances.

"This is a natural evolution of where Google Apps is," says Stephen Cho, director of Google Apps channels. In the two years since Google launched its productivity applications, Cho continues, Google has made progress with enterprise features and SLAs and gotten more than 1 million businesses aboard.

With the new program, Google intends to offer the resellers training, support, and tools for integrating Google Apps into customers' infrastructures, including APIs for tasks such as directory synchronization, migration, reporting, and single sign-on. Resellers, in turn, can bundle in their own services and support and maintain a direct relationship with customers.

Cho explains that this partner program was built from the ground up, SaaS style, so Google hosts all the tools resellers can use. He also points to Google's acquisition of Postini, which already had a robust channel in place. "We've taken lessons from that to bring this new reseller program into play."

But Philbert Shih, analyst with Tier1 Research, is skeptical. "Google does not have a lot of experience working with partners. I've not seen the groundwork, a foundation, for keeping them up to date," Shih says. "Will the resellers have expertise in Google products? I don't think Google can just hand off support and services."

What's more, "part of the appeal of Google is the no-install proposition and the fact that the apps are pretty intuitive," explains Jim Murphy, research director at AMR Research.

That said, Murphy expects that down the line, companies tapping Google Apps will look to partners for help employing and integrating processes, particularly those that interact with Microsoft Office. "Enterprises need reassurance about things such as privacy and security," qualities that signing on with a reseller can bring.

Of the large-enterprise customers Murphy speaks with on a daily basis, in fact, many are currently discussing a five-year plan for collaboration, a gradual evolution that often begins with Gmail and eventually includes other Google Apps. "For some companies, the SaaS model is a way of isolating that move from the unpredictable costs of being able to support all this stuff. Going with Google, which provides the infrastructure, can relieve those headaches," Murphy explains, adding that "it could also stifle the growth of Microsoft Office."

Microsoft, for its part, is simultaneously working on packaged and hosted editions of Office, the next tentatively dubbed Office 14. Although officials have offered little detail, Microsoft did say that Office 14 will include lightweight Web versions of Excel, PowerPoint, and Word offered via its Office Live Workspace service. Sources this week speculated that Office 14 will not ship in accordance with Windows 7 and may not become available until 2010.

In the meantime, Web-based applications not only from Google but also Adobe, IBM, and Zoho, among others are gaining purchase in small businesses. However, they have failed thus far to gain enterprise adoption, according to a report Forrester Research put out last week: "Companies use Word out of habit, not necessity."

Google's US partners consist of SADA Systems, Excel Micro, Horizon Info Services, Cloud Sherpas, and others, including providers from 25 countries. The company is also working to sign up Capgemini, which is already a partner in another Google program. "There are other recognizable names we're in advanced discussions with," Google's Cho says.

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