For its entire 30-year history, Microsoft has delivered software to users in some physical form, be it a floppy disc, CD-ROM, or DVD. But many customers today are expecting software to be online as well. No company excels at this quite like Google, which provides a host of Web-based applications and services that increasingly compete with Microsoft products and services. Indeed, Google is a company that you should examine in relation to your own needs. Here’s what you need to know about Google.

How Google Competes
In addition to its dominant search engine, Google has branched out into a startling array of Web-based products, services, servers, and client applications such as Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Blogger, Picasa, and YouTube. What’s particularly amazing is that while Google is somewhat dismissive of Microsoft—Google CEO Eric Schmidt once remarked that the software goliath was “not a significant competitor” online—Microsoft recently categorized Google and other “cloud computing” companies as primary competitors.

So where’s the overlap? For the largest enterprise customers, Google is just a distant promise, and the company doesn’t offer any of the core infrastructure servers that Microsoft does. For everyone else, however, from individuals to small-to-midsized businesses (SMBs), Google has some compelling solutions.

The most obvious of these is Google Apps (www.google.com/a), a powerful suite of online tools that provide Web-based email, calendaring, IM, Web hosting, and document creation and collaboration (word processing and spreadsheets currently, and databases soon). Individuals and families can use Google’s Gmail.com domain or their own domain for free. SMBs and educational institutions can move up to more expansive versions of the service, usually at a very low cost.

The advantages over Microsoft solutions such as Exchange are numerous: Google Apps is hosted and managed by Google, so customers don’t need to hire, train, and manage technical staff for services such as email and calendaring. The applications are often less complex than Microsoft’s solutions, and since the emerging workforce of recent college graduates is already familiar with Google and Gmail, most don’t require much help getting up and running. Google Apps is generally less expensive than Exchange as well, especially for small businesses.

Google has been working to ensure that Google Apps scales to the needs of bigger companies as well, but those needs include such things as security, uptime and performance. It’s likely that Google Apps will meet these needs within the next few years, regardless of the size of your organization. Currently, however, the suite doesn’t offer the functionality or uptime guarantees most businesses require.

Looking Ahead
One of the most obvious complaints about Web services is that users must be online to take advantage of them. However, two emerging trends make this less of a concern. First, an increasingly large number of users can access Web services from their smart phones, and it’s becoming less financially prohibitive for even small businesses to outfit their workforce with such devices. With a smart phone, users are rarely offline, and upcoming changes in rules for air travel will likely eliminate that final hurdle as well.

Second, Google says that it’s found a solution for offline Web applications and services. Dubbed Google Gears (gears.google.com), this technology will let users access Google Web services while offline. To date, only one Google service, Google Reader, takes advantage of this technology. Google says that it will bring other services online with Google Gears in the months ahead.

In the meantime, Google is trying to meet customers’ offline needs in other ways. As a result of a recent partnership with Sun Microsystems, Google now offers Sun’s $70 StarOffice 8 office productivity suite—a competitor to Microsoft Office—for free through the Google Pack service. StarOffice is more like Office 2000 than Office 2007, but it does offer the word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and database functionality that most customers require, and the price is certainly right. When used in conjunction with StarOffice, Google Apps gives SMBs much of the functionality of Exchange and Microsoft Office—albeit with some incompatibilities—for free or, at worst, for a fraction of the cost of the Microsoft products.

Recommendation
Although Google Apps isn’t adequate for most large companies, SMBs should begin to evaluate Google Apps and how it compares with Microsoft technology. Educational institutions especially are an excellent fit for Google’s services—though to be fair, Microsoft offers similar if less mature academic packages for its Windows Live Hotmail service.