There are two ways that big advances happen in business IT. One way is top down: the powers that be – IT departments and corporate executives – make a decision to bring a new system into a company, and employees are required, either happily or unhappily, to use the system. Think, for instance, of the installation of a big ERP system from SAP or Oracle. The other way is bottom up: individual employees or business units begin using a new technology, without any formal imprimatur from higher-ups, and it proves so valuable that IT departments and corporate execs have no choice but to embrace it. Think of instant messaging or, on a much larger scale, the PC revolution. Top-down technologies tend to be expensive (requiring their own line in a corporate budget), while the bottom-up ones tend to be fairly cheap (a person can put it on a credit card).
Web apps – the ones that run in the “cloud” rather than from your hard drive or from the server room down the hall – are mainly taking the bottom up route. The early adopters of Salesforce.com’s CRM service tended to be the salespeople in smaller companies or in individual business units. Because adopting Salesforce didn’t require a capital outlay – it was just a monthly expense – it didn’t require a lot of formal approvals from higher-ups. IT departments weren’t always happy, but they had little choice but to adapt as the service took hold. In most companies, after all, business units have more power than IT units.
Google’s announcement yesterday of a new “team edition” of its Apps suite of personal productivity programs is an effort to spur the bottom-up adoption of the programs in companies and other organizations. Up to now, there have been two ways to use Google Apps. You could sign up for a Google account and use the separate programs – Docs, Spreadsheets, etc. – as an individual. That’s free and easy, but it has some limitations when it comes to business use. For one thing, it lacks security controls – documents can be shared easily with anyone, whether inside or outside a company. More important, there’s no easy way to see who else in your company or your unit is using the programs, so setting up collaborative efforts is a bit cumbersome.
The second, more formal way is to have your company set up a formal Google Apps account linked to its Internet domain. This method provides a lot more security and eases collaboration, but it requires the involvement of IT staff. Your company has to formally approve Apps before you can use it – and that approval can be hard to come by, particularly in a large company with all its bureaucratic rigamarole.
The team edition offers a third route. It’s basically the Facebook model: your email address is your personal identifier and, because it’s tied to your company’s domain, provides an easy way to define the company you’re associated with. So if you sign up for a team account, you can immediately see who else in your company has signed up and, for security purposes, you can easily restrict access to just your coworkers. You can, in other words, gain most of the advantages of the formal Google Apps system without having to get approval or assistance from your IT department. As Google’s Rajen Seth told Dan Farber, “In previous versions of Google Apps … the IT department had to get involved in verifying domains and centrally managing users. With the Team Edition a project group can use Google Docs on a project or the Calendar, and individuals on a team can sign up just using their email address.” And the team edition is free, so you don’t even need a credit card.
By easing the grassroots adoption of Apps, Google hopes to begin reshaping the way employees – and then employers – think about personal productivity apps. The idea isn’t to displace, say, Microsoft Office, but to complement it, providing a simple way to collaborate on documents and other files. As the use of Apps becomes more established, it becomes natural for companies to formally adopt the programs to gain further capabilities and controls. In the process, they’ll probably also sign up for the premium edition, which requires a $50 per user subscription. And then, in the long run, people start realizing that they’re doing pretty much everything they need to do within the web apps, and they start asking themselves: why exactly are we still licensing the old-fashioned versions of these programs and suffering the expense and nuisance of installing and running them on all our PCs?
And then the bottom-up revolution is complete. Or so Google hopes – and Microsoft fears.