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Will Google win the enterprise?

May 03, 2006

In the new issue of CIO magazine, Ben Worthen paints a picture of what he calls “the Google-future,” in which the Web computing model pioneered by “the company most everybody loves” comes to dominate business computing. Google, writes Worthen, is

poised to lead the Web computing revolution that everyone in the IT industry has been talking about since the 1990s. Google's platform, along with the others bound to follow in its wake, will, over time, move computing to the Web and away from the desktop. As this happens, IT will get better - applications will be easier, faster and cheaper to use - much as it did when it moved off the mainframe 20 years ago. "We're still far away from a holistic Web computing solution," says Brian Shield, CIO of The Weather Channel. "But the pieces are not that far away. We're not far from fostering greater productivity with Google's name on it."

Worthen’s right that we’re moving into a new era of business computing. Modular utility services will eventually displace most of the complex, proprietary systems that companies and their IT vendors have painstakingly – and often painfully – constructed over the last fifty years. And business computing, as it slowly frees itself from its client-server shackles, will indeed become “easier, faster and cheaper.” I’ve called it “the end of corporate computing,” meaning that most of the computing assets traditionally owned and maintained by individual corporations will come to be owned and maintained by outside utility suppliers.

But what will Google’s role be in the future of business IT? That’s much less clear. Worthen’s correct to point out that Google, “unencumbered by a legacy architecture,” has been able to build a utility computing infrastructure that’s far more advanced than what any big enterprise IT vendor can at this point offer. Where things become dicey is in figuring out how adaptable that infrastructure - and Google's business model - will prove to be in supplying the computing needs of businesses.

Because Google presents a Kremlin-like enigma to outsiders, its inner workings and its plans are open to speculation. It's easy to assume that there's much more behind the Googleplex's drawn curtains than has been revealed. To Worthen, it comes as

no surprise that people looking at the company just see a search engine, some snappy consumer applications and no coherent commercial strategy. "But what you see on the surface is just what they choose to show you," says [Google Blogoscoped's Philipp] Lenssen. "It's like they are holding a magnet beneath a table. All you see is a metal ball moving around on top. Because you can't see the magnet, you assume the ball is moving randomly." Less colorfully put, because Google's strength lies not in the applications it shows the world but in the architecture it doesn't, the company's business strategy is not readily apparent. But according to Lenssen, people who look at Google and see nothing more than random growth are making a big mistake. Most of the high-tech industry is just starting to realize this.

Maybe so. But what is that business strategy, as it applies to the enterprise market? Worthen’s article is at its most intriguing when he’s quoting Dave Girouard, who is the general manager of Google's enterprise division. Let me take the liberty of piecing together a few of Worthen’s tea-leafy comments:

"Our infrastructure is an important competitive advantage for us. It has incredible reliability and scalability, and the cost per user is incredibly low … The wall between consumer and worker is dropping. People can work from anywhere. There's a real blurring of the line. People are people. They don't turn into information scientists when they show up at work in the morning. There are a lot of opportunities for us there. We let things take root and mature on the consumer side. And where it makes sense, we'll bring something over to the enterprise … Over the next five to 10 years, [the enterprise division] will become a big part of Google … It will happen without people noticing. People look for a eureka moment but things just seep in. That's what's happening here."

This is a radical vision for the evolution of corporate IT. Rather than enter the enterprise through the CIO and his staff, Google is looking, Girouard implies, to bypass the IT Department altogether. It will simply go on providing an ever larger set of simple, flexible services, and it will leave it to individual workers and the business units they're part of to, in effect, cobble those services together into an entirely new corporate IT architecture. What I think Girouard is saying – and it’s consistent with the messages that come from his superiors – is that Google sees no point in competing head-on with IBM and SAP and Oracle and EDS for corporate accounts. It will let those vendors oversee the orderly decline of the old model of IT – the model that, it’s worth remembering, still accounts for all their profits – while the new model, the Google model, grows organically inside organizations. It’s happy, in other words, to let a disruptive technology – in this case, Web computing – take its natural course, growing from the bottom up to eat away at, and ultimately replace, the old model. (It also explains why Google is obsessed with Microsoft; Microsoft is the only major IT vendor that also has a strong business serving consumers.)

Of course, Google faces plenty of challenges. Most obviously, it has a long way to go in creating the kind of software services companies will require to run their businesses. And it's ad-supported business model doesn't seem transferable to the enterprise market, beyond very small companies. But Google's biggest hindrance may end up being its ideology. It seems to believe, above all, in empowering individuals. That's a fine ideal. But while businesses want to empower their employees, they also need to control them. Empowerment without control doesn't work in the context of a good-sized organization bent on maximizing its profitability. If Google stakes its future purely on bottom-up empowerment, without also acknowledging managers' need to exert top-down control, it may be limiting its prospects in the enterprise market.

In this regard, Rearden Commerce presents a useful contrast to Google. Rearden is also trying to provide web services at the intersection between individuals' personal and corporate lives. By "mashing up" data from many different sources, such as airline reservation systems, it helps workers manage their personal business expenses and activities. At the same time, it offers companies sophisticated options for imposing control over those expenses and activities. It seeks to empower users, and thus achieve bottom-up adoption, but it also provides companies with the kind of top-down controls that can help rationalize and reduce overall expenses. There's something to be said for providing services that actually solve corporate problems as well as empowering individuals.

It remains to be seen whether Google will be able to adapt its noble and strongly-held "user empowerment" ideology