Q&A: Google Official Rebuts Microsoft's Cloud Critiques

Google Product Mananger Rajen Sheth fends off claims about the need for rich Office clients, traditional PCs, and alleged shortcomings in Google's hosted apps and SLA policies.

Google is stepping up its efforts to displace Windows and Office with its own cloud-based offerings: Chrome OS and Google Apps. As Microsoft fights back with the pending release of Office 365, Google is showing no signs of letting up. Rajen Sheth, group product manager for Google Enterprise Business, recently discussed his views on how his company seeks to reshape how knowledge workers use computers and how they collaborate.

Microsoft argues that, with client-side software, you get a richer experience and you have the data locally. What's your take on that argument?
I think it's definitely a myth that you can get a richer client-side experience with thick-client software than you can with Web-based software. If you asked me that same question four or five years ago, I'd say you're absolutely correct. If you ask me that question now, I'd point to a variety of the applications that are out there that are built in HTML5 and have tremendously rich client-side experiences. The benefit beyond the tremendously rich client-side experience is you don't have to download anything.

What about the notion that some people want their data locally?
The benefits of having data locally are waning. A few things are driving that. The first thing is just connectivity. People are connected more and more often. What you're going to see is over time, the times when people are offline are going to shrink more and more and more. That said, I think offline is an important use case and I think one of the things we were showing at the Chrome OS launch was talking about offline. What happens if your Chrome OS notebook is not connected, and how can you use some of these applications offline? I think that's one of the great advances with this new generation of HTML applications with HTML5: there's that ability to have good amounts of offline caching that serve two purposes. One, it makes the user experience faster for the end user, and [two], it also lets people use it when they're not connected.

Can you explain how the offline caching works with Chrome OS?
It caches in the browser. Using some of the application techniques of HTML5 and Chrome, people have that ability to cache some data locally. It's one of the key things that have made it such that users get a very high performance experience with Web-based applications, even though those applications are running elsewhere.

What is the security model?
Chrome OS has this concept of verified boot, and so on every boot [we can] make sure that nothing has been modified with that operating system. And if something has been modified we can roll back to the last known good copy. This makes it extremely hard -- if not impossible -- for things like viruses to come into the system. Not only do you have that concept of verified boot, but having it such that the device itself is stateless makes it so the typical security risks of losing the device or somebody breaking into the device are no longer relevant because the device itself doesn't have relevant data on it.

Is it Google's belief that this cloud model will replace the traditional PC, or will it coexist with it?
I think we're in the midst of a fundamental shift in computing. You're going to see this shift happen over the course of the next few years, and you've seen parts of this happen over the last few years. I think the concept of cloud computing has been the first part of that fundamental shift. We've seen computing go from a few years ago -- where customers wouldn't even consider the notion of having their applications hosted by somebody else -- to now most companies are developing a cloud strategy and trying to figure out what they can actually put in the cloud. I think you're going to see a transformation happen in terms of the desktop, as well -- and client devices, as well. I think in a few years the average user is going to have multiple access points. Whether it's their mobile device, whether it's their desktop, whether it's a laptop, whether it's a home computer, they'll be using all of those as work devices. That's a fundamental shift. The other thing, though, is I think the form factor and the makeup of the desktop device is going to become different, and that's everything from things like simple stateless Chrome notebooks to tablets to mobile devices and smarter and smarter mobile devices. If you look five years out, the way that people will be accessing and running their applications will be different from what you see now and what you saw five years ago.

With the Chrome OS launch, you announced a partnership with Citrix. Can you explain what that's about?
The great thing about that partnership was there wasn't a lot that had to be done. The reason was HTML5. Basically Citrix has a version of Citrix Receiver that's based on HTML5, and what that means is you can access your desktop from a Chrome OS device but you can also access it from any Chrome browser and you can also access it from any other HTML5-compatible browser that's out there. Really what we're focusing on is how we make the browser better and better. And then in addition to that, how do we make it such that people fully grasp the power of what you can do with HTML5? The Citrix Receiver is one great example of the power of HTML5 and a great example of things that would never have been possible a few years ago.

Will the Citrix Receiver enable Chrome OS users to access Windows-based desktops?
Exactly. So, for example, if you do have applications that run on Windows-based desktops, if you have the Windows desktop running with Citrix, you'll be able to access those applications from a Chrome browser or a Chrome OS device.

Microsoft points to a number of weaknesses in Google Apps. Among them it says you can't assign priority to messages, you're not able to have read-receipts, you can't delegate tasks, you can't have rich-text signatures and there are tons of formatting issues.
I'd [argue with] a lot of those, but some of those are blatantly incorrect. We do have rich text signatures and that's part of the platform. And for prioritization we actually go several steps further than just having the end user be able to set priority on a message. We have a concept called "priority inbox," which actually does a lot to essentially learn about your e-mail behavior and figure out what's important and what's not and prioritize those that are important. It tunes itself to find the most important messages to you regardless of what the sender has to say, so it ends up being a much more useful device for the end user. With all that said, we're four years into this game and we're going to continue to build more and more and more things. Every year, we see our competitors saying Google doesn't have X, Y and Z, and we've been able to tackle those. Rich-text signatures are a great example. It's something we released several months ago, and it was something we didn't have before but we've been able to listen to our customers and build the functionality that they need in order to make them successful.

What's the status of read-receipts and task delegation?
Those are two things we don't have, but, again, what I'll tell you is, those are things that we've heard [about] from our end users and we're going to continue to march along the line of delivering a lot of these key features that our end users want.

What about service level agreements (SLAs)? Microsoft argues if downtime is less than 10 minutes it's not included and that Google only gives credits.
In reality that's a major red herring. Basically if you look at how we've enforced our SLAs over time, we've actually been even more generous with our end users than anything else. If we're failing our end users, we'll credit them. In situations where we've had downtime in the past, we've actually credited our users in order to make sure that our users are satisfied. So the arguments have not actually found basis in reality. With things like credits, forward credits as opposed to paying back the users, we've been working with a lot of our customers to try to figure out what is the right SLA, and we've arrived at something we believe is a strong SLA that meets the needs of our end users.

Another point Microsoft is arguing is that the Google App Sync tool provides only partial synchronizations and in some cases requires users to manage two different inboxes.
That's completely incorrect. The sync tool essentially gives you a view of your inbox through Microsoft Outlook. We've gone to great lengths to make it such that our users have a choice of user interfaces. If they want to use the Gmail user interface they can; if they want to use the Outlook user interface they can as well. Any messages that you manipulate or send or read or do anything with on the Outlook side will be reflected on the server. When you check Gmail, you'll see those changes to the Web interface as well.

On the collaboration side, Microsoft argues that Google limits file sizes and converts documents into HTML, resulting in altered content such as missing charts and changes to documents.
What we actually do is give people the choice. We have a set of functionality that we support within Google Docs and we continue to upgrade that functionality to have more and more functionality. I think we're to the point where, with the Google Docs suite, we can say that it can be an office productivity tool for the vast majority of end users. That said, there are power users that use functionality within Excel, within PowerPoint, within Word that we don't support. We just released a product called Google Cloud Connect, which brings the Google collaborative experience to Microsoft Office. So if you're using Word 2007, you're able to work on a document collaboratively with others. We see this as a great bridge to the cloud. It makes it such that within an organization, you're not going to get every user to convert on day one, but this makes it such that you can convert a good majority of your users and then also provide the collaborative functionality to the users.

Speaking of Cloud Connect, Microsoft sees that as a sign that Google is waving the white flag. Microsoft believes Cloud Connect proves that organizations really do want to have a rich data experience.
That's completely incorrect. I think really what we've found in talking to customers is a vast majority of users within an organization don't need the functionality that's there within Microsoft Office. So we believe where we are with Google Docs right now is a great solution for the vast majority of users within an organization. With that said, there are users for one reason or another who want to use Microsoft Office. It could be they like Office better, it could be there's functionality in Office that we don't yet have. We're going to work to close that gap, but we want to make it such that they have a good bridge to the cloud. The great thing about Cloud Connect is all of a sudden, without any new server-side software or any upgrades to Office, you have strong collaborative functionality versus having to upgrade your entire infrastructure to Office 2010 and upgrade and implement SharePoint 2010 on the server side to get collaborative functionality that actually is not on par with Google Docs. What we're providing is a great bridge to the cloud, so you can deploy collaboration to all of your employees and give them the choice of whether they want to use Google Docs or whether they want to use Office.

What percentage of Google Apps customers are paying customers versus those using the free version?
We don't discuss the numbers for that, but what I can tell you is we have millions of paying users on the platform right now.

Microsoft argues most of your customers are sitting on the free version.
I can't release numbers for you but it doesn't matter. The fact is that 3 million-plus are on Google Apps. It doesn't matter if they're on the free version or they're on the paid version -- they're using Google Apps every single day.

What's your take on Office 365?
My take is it's definitely good to see that what we've been doing has had a strong affect on the market. Competition is always good, [and] what you're going to see as a result [is] more and more software vendors working in this space and more and more cloud vendors working in this space. You're going to see the innovation rate continue to go through the roof. What we'll see is, in the next 10 years, there's going to be an order of magnitude greater innovation than we ever saw in the last 10 years.

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.


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