What has Google done for the enterprise lately?

Sadly, not a lot – its mission seems more aligned with the Starship Enterprise than business needs. It is interested in space – Google Mars for instance – the final frontier of capturing all the world’s information and boldly going where no search engine company has gone before.

Providing service and support for a relational database, entering into a service level agreement for a suite of office productivity tools or installing servers to run an IT infrastructure sound altogether too mundane for the innovative Mountain View company.

That should be a mighty relief to the likes of Microsoft, Oracle and Hewlett Packard, who may justifiably feel they have little to fear from Google in their core competencies.

Google does not have to serve the enterprise, of course, when 99 per cent of its revenues come from advertising and are showing spectacular growth.

“But there will come a day when those revenues are flat and at that point the enterprise software and services market is going to seem very exciting and they are going to want to talk about that to Wall Street,” Whit Andrews, a Gartner analyst, told me last week.

Gartner has been looking at Google’s enterprise intentions and wondering where they may lead.

Google’s regular tactic of throwing different jellies at a wall of users and seeing which sticks does not constitute a strategy for success in the enterprise, which insists on products that are ready for primetime, 99.9 per cent reliability and someone there to fix things when they go wrong.

Google’s most serious effort in the enterprise to date has been the Google search appliance, although the bright yellow box with holes in it resembles more a slice of Swiss cheese than a blade server. But, from $30,000, the server will index and search half a million documents and, with the smaller Google Mini box, it has won 4,000 customers for the company.

“I’ve spoken to about 20 to 25 of these and they tell me that when they want support, Google says: ‘Yes, we know there’s a problem, we’ll get to it’,” says Mr Andrews.

“That’s something they have to change – they need a clear vision they can tell enterprises about. Enterprises know what Microsoft is doing, they have a road map, they have manuals, training, you get a sense of what they are going to do for you.”

But Google’s Enterprise division is still tiny – made up of only 200 employees from its 6,000 strong workforce. Dave Girouard, its general manager, represents it as a semi-autonomous start-up within the company.

He foresees a day when search will become so vital to enterprise employees for accessing the information they need that Google could become central to the workplace.

First though, it will have to match the skills of bigger enterprise search companies such as Autonomy in dealing with legacy systems, unstructured data and security issues such as restricting company data sets only to those who have privileges.

The Enterprise team is also hard at work trying to adapt for business use Google products originally aimed at consumers and in beta, that are now becoming fully developed.

Google Maps for Enterprise was launched last month. This offers full enterprise licensing and support for its Maps service, meaning businesses can “map customer locations, track shipments, manage facilities” etc and publish these on their websites or intranets.

It is also at the early stages of testing its Gmail e-mail service with universities and small businesses. The thinking seems to be that e-mail is very much tied up with search and company information and Gmail is a natural complement to its search appliance.

Beyond that, Google has introduced an online calendar in beta recently and a spreadsheet application. It has acquired Writely, a word processor inside a web browser, and all it needs to complete a Microsoft Office-type basic suite of applications is a Powerpoint alternative.

In addition, services such as Google Video, Picasa photo editing software and its Blogger tool for creating web logs could all find uses in the enterprise.

The problem for Google is integrating them into a clearly defined product set and developing a licensing or subscription model very different from its current advertising one.

Google’s products and their constant updates lend themselves very much to the software-as-a-service online model, enabling workers to collaborate in an ad hoc way over the web.

This sounds like the future, but the Starship Google needs to engage a different warp factor to achieve it.

As it stands, the state of its enterprise solutions is more akin to a frantic Scottie in the engine room shouting “She canna take much more captain,” up to the bridge.

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