Are Google Apps and Microsoft headed for a showdown?

Google's Application platform is awaiting an imminent stamp of approval from the federal government. Google hopes its Web-based application package can displace Microsoft's entrenched hold on some parts of the government market. But it may have a tough time making any significant inroads into a market that Microsoft has dominated for years.

The Google Apps platform consists of Google Docs, Gmail, spreadsheets, a video tool and Google Sites, said David Mihalchik, the company's federal business development manager. Mihalchik said that Google Apps offers about 100 times the storage of most email solutions at about  25 percent of the cost.

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Government customers are very attracted to the technology, he said. "We have well over a dozen federal agencies that are using the technology in some form, anywhere from a pilot to full production of a part of our Apps platform."

Because it lives on the Web and is not resident on an organization's desktop computers or servers, Google Apps is also considered a cloud computing tool. Citing a recent report by the Office of Management and Budget on the state of public sector cloud computing, Mihalchik said that a number of public sector organizations using cloud computing, such as the Energy Department, also use Google Apps.

But Carl Howe, director of consumer research at the Yankee Group said that Google faces several challenges, the first being that Microsoft is entrenched in government markets. The other hurdle centers on uneasiness in the federal sector about the security of data in cloud computing. "It sounds attractive until you say 'how do we make sure that only government employees and no foreign nationals get access to this data?'" he said.

Google introducted the Apps suite in 2007. In the fall of 2009, the software package began the FISMA-certification process. Mihalchik said that this was an important step because it will allow customers to know that Google Apps meets the same requirements for all federal IT systems. Google Apps is already growing in state and local markets such as the cities of Los Angeles and Orlando, Florida. "We've seen very rapid adoption at the state and local levels," he said.

State and local government organizations dont' have to worry abut FISMA. Once Google files its certification and accreditation package, Mihalchik expects similar growth in the federal market. He said that Google has already seen some immediate growth, which is based on federal customers trying to reduce costs and improve collaboration.

The drivers behind the growth are the budget pressures and recognition that spends too much on IT. "In some cases they're not getting the most of what they're spending on IT," Mihalchik said.

Cloud computing offers the potential to reduce costs and to increase performance as well. Advantages include increased email storage, the ability for users to collaborate in real time on the same document. These capabilities not only allow the government to cut costs, but to improve business and collaboration. When government employees cannot collaborate,it affects morale and productivity, he said.

Howe said that Google Apps is attractive for the perceived cost savings, but the challenge in applying a bottom line mentality to government is that they have special needs that are not met by a business-based approach. One of these needs is security, another is priority services for emergencies, he said. 

While online services have potential, Howe said that there will be a fair amount of tweaking to meet specific needs. "If Google decides to get into it, they'll offer something special, or at least more tailored," he said.

It is likely that either Google or a third party will develop plug ins to the Google APP's that will provide the assurances that government users require, Howe said.

The advent of Google Apps will provide government agencies with the possibility of using two types of service. For more public agencies, Google Apps in a non security setting will be attractive.

Ironically, Howe said that the sharing capability in Microsoft Office 2010 may make the company less attractive to government because it adds in cloud computing. "A lot depends on how much the government wants to enforce the requirements for privacy. The more that we want good security, the less cloud use I think you're going to see. The less security, the more cloud you'll see. I think it's really going to be a tradeoff," he said.