Google Tuesday unveiled synchronization technology that supports Microsoft Outlook as the front end to Gmail, giving users an option to scrap Exchange on the back end while allowing users to keep their familiar desktop client.
Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook provides synchronization for e-mail, calendar and contacts between Gmail and Outlook/Exchange. It is only available to users of Google Apps Premier, the company's $50 per user corporate offering, and those using the Education (Edu) version.
As part of its offering, Google has developed a protocol called GDATA that is similar to its Gears technology to aid in the sync of Outlook and the Google back end. Gears supports offline use of applications.
"This is a case of Google leading with the strongest part of Google Apps and doing the right thing, which is saying we can save you money on the back end without disrupting your end-user environments," says Guy Creese, an analyst with the Burton Group. Creese says users should be able to save on two Microsoft licenses, one for Exchange itself and the other being the client access license (CAL) to the server. "For some, Outlook is ingrained into the way they work and if you take away Outlook you are taking away their security blanket."
Google's offer to let users keep their familiar Outlook client while swapping out the back end is similar to moves made by other Exchange alternatives such as Gordano and PostPath, which was bought by Cisco last year.
Google offers a number of synchronization tools that work between Outlook and Google Apps, but the new tool wraps everything into a single 5MB plug-in that can be deployed via Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager.
In addition, the synchronization is built into Outlook and is not an additional application outside the client.
The plug-in supports Windows XP SP3, Vista and Outlook 2007 and is currently only available in English.
Google says GDATA provides for faster synchronization between the two platforms in comparison to IMAP, which had been the only sync technology available between the two. IMAP's slow performance has been a hindrance for those wanting to use Outlook against a Gmail back end.
"We saw Outlook performance as a major hurdle to rolling out Google mail across our enterprise," says Chris O'Connor, IT director at Genentec. He now has 1,000 users on Outlook out of 15,000 total. He says IMAP was the cause of the performance hurdle. "We have been using the new tool in our sandbox and have come to the conclusion that it looks like a native Outlook experience and the average user does not know what is on the back end. We expect quick adoption when we release this to our enterprise users."
The Google synchronization technology also adds a number of other features including access to the global access list and the ability to look up another user's free and busy time. And a migration tool lets users move their Exchange .PST file into Gmail, a process the company says takes two clicks.
"People need speed and for it to be the same, it has to look as feel like Outlook," says Chris Vander Mey, senior product manager at Google.
On the desktop, data is stored in an Outlook .pst file and Google retrieves data from that file. "We have built our own MAPI provider, and when messages come in from Outlook or from Google we bring them down over GDATA and send them into Outlook the same way Exchange would do it. We just change what is going out over the wire," says Vander Mey.
Of course that is when something is actually going out over the wire. Google has had a number of incidents of prolonged downtime recently.
Dave Girouard, president of Google's enterprise division, says he feels Google Apps is "more reliable than those [platforms] you can run and maintain yourself. We feel very good about uptime for Gmail, not to say we are perfect, but we believe we are more reliable in more places in the world than what you can build yourself."
Citing data from Forrester Research, Girouard says he thinks Google Apps is three to 20 times less expensive than competing platforms depending on what parts of Google Apps users have rolled out.
The Outlook synchronization tool represents another investment by Google in its enterprise collaboration tools. Google's enterprise division includes more than 1,000 employees, up from 20 in 2004. It provides hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, which is the only specific data Google will provide.
In addition, Google claims 1.75 million businesses have signed up for Google Apps with more than 15 million users on its cloud-based mail and collaboration platform.
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