Google Apps adds discussion forums

This new application will be available to users of Apps' Education and Premier editions

The Google Apps hosted communication and collaboration suite, which packs e-mail, calendar, office productivity applications and a wiki-based Web site builder, among other applications, is gaining a new component: discussion forums with mailing lists.

As has been the case with its other components, Apps is fetching this latest application from Google's roster of consumer services -- in this case the Google Groups service -- and giving it the necessary tweaks to make it suitable for a workplace setting, like IT administration controls.

"We're adding a key piece of functionality that really bolsters our enterprise messaging functions," said Rajen Sheth, Google Apps senior product manager. "This is also a great example of the concept of consumerization of enterprise and of giving power to the users to do things they've typically had to rely on IT to do for them."

The Groups application, which will go live on Wednesday, allows for the creation of mailing lists for group members, but also lets users embed other Apps components into the forums, including calendars, word-processing documents, presentations, videos and spreadsheets. Content posted to the forums is indexed in full text and searchable.

Groups is available in the Education and Premier editions of Apps, but not in the Standard edition. Apps administrators need to activate Groups for their domain, at which point end-users can create forums in an ad-hoc fashion without IT intervention. The IT department can establish policies and access rights for groups. Group owners also can manage certain settings for their forums and lists.

Google, the undisputed leader in the consumer search-engine market, is intent on becoming a major player in enterprise software, and Google Apps is arguably its best-known product for workplaces, an up-and-coming rival to established communication and collaboration suites from the likes of Microsoft and IBM's Lotus.

Part of Apps' buzz comes from its cloud computing architecture, which Google maintains is a better option than conventional software that customers need to install and maintain on their own servers. While CIOs and IT managers are warming up to hosted software like Apps, concerns over relying on vendors to maintain the software and store the data haven't fully dissipated.

Launched about three years ago, Apps has traditionally appealed to small organizations, especially via its free Standard edition. However, since the introduction of the enterprise-geared Premier edition, Google has set its sights on medium-size and large organizations. Premier, which costs US$50 per user per year, includes IT management and e-mail security capabilities, as well as support and a service-level guarantee.

It's good that Google continues to invest in extending and refining Apps, said Sheri McLeish, a Forrester analyst. "This is another incremental step that Google is taking to solidify its platform," she said.

However, a challenge when adding new applications, components and functionality to a suite like Apps is to do it in a way that doesn't make it bloated with features that most people don't use, McLeish said.

"They're walking a fine line here," she said.

The key is to make sure that new pieces to the suite are added in order to support a user need that has been clearly identified and articulated, McLeish said.

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