I had planned to write about Windows Vista deployment tools this week (see the URL below), but an interesting new release from an unlikely company threw a wrench into my plans. That company, Google, isn't particularly well-known for its enterprise offerings, though I expect that's going to change as the company moves more and more into mano-a-mano battles with Microsoft and other enterprise software and service suppliers. (And to be fair, Google has made a few tepid steps into the data center with such products as Google Mini and Google Search Appliance, its rack-based search hardware solutions.)

What's gotten me excited is Google Apps (formerly Google Apps for Your Domain). What led me there is a circuitous route that will be difficult to fully explain. The short version is this: I've spent the past month evaluating Windows Calendar (part of Vista) and comparing it to other calendaring solutions such as Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla Sunbird, and Web-based solutions like Google Calendar. Unlike Outlook, Windows Calendar is fully compliant with existing Web standards for calendaring, so it makes it very easy to share calendars. (Even Office Outlook 2007, by contrast, is mostly geared toward Microsoft Exchange and other proprietary calendaring technologies, though this version does at least make it easy to subscribe to Web-based calendars.)

What I discovered was this. Outlook is infinitely superior to Windows Calendar, even for individuals, but its lagging support of Web-based calendaring standards is alarming in this day and age (and geesh, its export options are laughably antiquated). Of the Web calendars, Google's was the best: Both Yahoo and Microsoft have almost pathologically avoided Web calendaring standards in their own products for some reason. Game over, guys.

Here's what this means: If individuals wish to create calendars that can be used or accessed anywhere, the Web is the way to go. And only Google Calendar supports the standards that make it easy to subscribe to, or digest, calendar data from virtually any client (including Outlook, Windows Calendar, and the iCal client in OS X).

So how does this affect businesses? It doesn't, really, until you factor in Google Apps for Domains, which combines Gmail email, Google Calendar, Google Talk instant messaging (IM), Web-based word processing, spreadsheet solutions, and simple Web-based administration consoles. You can tie these services to your own domain--perfect for small businesses, schools, and even families--and the low-end version is absolutely free, offering 2GB of storage space per email address. For just $50 a user, you get 10GB of storage space per user and other business-friendly features like a promise of 99.9 percent uptime, 24/7 phone support, and access to APIs that will let you integrate with your existing infrastructure and, most important, access the wellspring of third-party solutions that inevitably flower every time Google opens up one of its products or services to outside extensibility.

I don't expect Google Apps to cause much excitement with the largest businesses, at least not in this initial version, but if you're involved in a small- or medium-sized business, an educational institution, or other smaller organization, light bulbs should be flashing over your head right now. As they are, metaphorically, over mine.

Here's the thing. Google is a largely unproven entity when it comes to supporting businesses, and I'm not necessarily suggesting that you become one of the first guinea, er ah, customers to sign up for Google Apps and see how things go over the next several months. But if my years-long experience with Gmail is any indication, this is a service that should prove quite valuable to many, many organizations. And I'm not sure if I would have gotten that, at least not this quickly, had it not been for a fortuitous and coincidental exploration of calendaring solutions. Now, I'm convinced that Google has found a way to extend its search domination into a new market, one that's currently dominated by Microsoft.

Which brings up an interesting point: Microsoft doesn't really offer anything like this, especially at these price points, although it's not hard to imagine an Exchange Hosted Services revamp, perhaps branded under the Office Live banner, designed to take on Google Apps. Competition is a wonderful thing, and I can't wait to see what they come up with.

Google Apps http://www.google.com/a/

Windows Vista Deployment Tools: Solution Accelerator for Business Desktop Deployment 2007 http://www.microsoft.com/technet/desktopdeployment/bdd/2007/default.mspx

Application Compatibility Toolkit 5.0 http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/windowsvista/aa905102.aspx

Windows Vista Hardware Assessment 1.0 http://www.microsoft.com/technet/solutionaccelerators/hardwareassessment/wv/default.mspx