Google released a tool called Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook, which can help organizations switch from expensive and proprietary Microsoft Exchange Server messaging servers to less expensive (but no less proprietary) Google servers. In typical Google fashion, the tool is essentially free, but it's also not something that an organization can run automatically: Rather, it needs to be run manually on each user's PC.

Still, the Google Apps Sync tool strikes right at the heart of one of Microsoft's biggest enterprise successes. And it paves the way for more automated tools in the future.

"Today we're excited to remove another key barrier to enterprise adoption of Google Apps with Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook," says Google engineer Eric Orth. "There are some people who just love Outlook. For them, we've developed Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook."

Google says it's specifically targeting Outlook with this tool because that's how most users experience Exchange, and because the key to getting businesses to move from Exchange to Google solutions is to make the experience as seamless as possible for users. If the tool does its job, users should be able to continue using Outlook, unaware that anything has changed on the back end.

Google currently offers two levels of Google Apps services, one paid and one free. To get Google Apps Sync for Outlook, you technically need the paid service, but since anyone can evaluate the paid version, the tool is available to anyone who wants it. Google Apps offers Exchange-like email, contacts, calendar, and task management, and adds document-creation and -editing capabilities. All of these services are web-based, but the Exchange-like tools can be accessed from traditional PC applications such as Outlook, as well.

Google Apps isn't currently much of a threat to Exchange, but it's not hard to imagine a free tool that duplicates Exchange functionality catching on with businesses of all sizes, especially given current economic conditions. Google says it has tens of millions of users and hundreds of millions in yearly revenues. "It's profitable and it's growing," says Google Enterprise Business President Dave Girouard.

For more information, please visit the Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook site.

You can also check out my Windows IT Pro article, "What You Need to Know About Google Apps" and Michael Otey's Top 10 column, "Features of Google Apps".