What's keeping enterprises from using G Suite?

Despite Google's big business push, its productivity suite has an uphill battle against Office

While Google has spent the past year trying to woo enterprises to its G Suite productivity apps, it’s still the underdog compared to Microsoft Office, at least among large businesses. So what’s keeping it from broader appeal?

One of the biggest hurdles for Google achieving broader enterprise adoption is just the fact that the company’s products aren't identical to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and other Microsoft Office apps, Gartner Senior Research Analyst Joe Mariano said.

"Enterprises have been ingrained in the Microsoft stack for essentially the beginning of time, it feels like," Mariano said. "[Enterprises] have problems shifting away from that, because they have a lot of investments, either in customizations or how they're using the tools."

Office has been the dominant productivity suite in the enterprise for decades, with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook making up key parts of businesses' everyday workflows. Google has a tough road ahead of it supplanting those applications.

It's not for lack of trying: Under the leadership of Diane Greene, the senior vice president of Google Cloud, the company's products have undergone a number of changes and fresh launches aimed at appealing to large businesses.

Those changes included a new Google Sites that has been built to compete more closely with Microsoft's SharePoint document management and storage system, and a Springboard service that’s supposed to help employees more easily find files they need. Last year, Greene revealed that the company created a consulting group to help understand the needs of enterprises using its products.

The company recently announced that 3 million organizations are paying for G Suite, up from 2 million at the end of 2015. It’s solid progress for Google, but much of that expansion has come from small and medium-size businesses, not massive customers.

Peter Yared, the CTO of Sapho, said that G Suite adoption has been largely nonexistent among the companies that his company serves.

"Look, we never run into Slack, we never run into G Suite," he said. "We never run into these things. Those are for the small part of the [small and medium business] segment."

Sapho sells a service that helps companies connect their disparate — and often outdated — systems of record with one another to help speed up their employees' work. Its clients are exactly the sort of large enterprises that Google is trying to gain favor with.

There are some enterprises that have taken the plunge, however. Telus International, a subsidiary of the Canadian telecommunications company that provides phone support, currently has 25,000 of its employees using G Suite. The company migrated over to Google's productivity suite four years ago and isn't looking back, according to Michael Ringman, its chief information officer.

At the time of the migration, Telus International had several different setups for productivity and collaboration. Working across the company's offices (some of which exist as a result of acquisitions) while using on-premises versions of Microsoft Office was cumbersome. While it took work to manage the change from Microsoft's suite to Google's, Ringman said that the outcome was positive.

"The reality we've seen, we've seen better collaboration, better communication and frankly had better [employee] engagement," Ringman said. "We actually measure our engagement scores ... and have seen an increase in our engagement scores somewhat directly as well as indirectly due to our rollout of the Google G Suite."

Businesses build entire workflows around Office products, and will often use macros to automate some of their work, said Patrick Moorhead, the founder and principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy. That entrenched use of specific features can also hinder adoption.

“So, for instance, a company will go in and do macros and run their business on a spreadsheet. And that is a factor. I can’t just dial up G Suite and have those macros work,” Moorhead said. “G Suite was born in the cloud, Office 365 was born on the desktop. So if you have things that need to run on the desktop really well like macros, that instantly takes you out of the G Suite camp.”

That’s a problem Google's engineers are working hard to tackle, according to Prabhakar Raghavan, a vice president of engineering at the company. However, he said it's a challenge because the macros have been built for client software that runs on a user's computer, rather than a web app.

"Our intent is not to move off 100 percent cloud into some sort of hybrid environment, our direction is to remain in the cloud," he said. "And so the challenge my engineers are hard at work solving is how to provision, entirely in the cloud, the things that people can get from a hybrid environment."

People at Telus International who still need to rely on macros or other dedicated functionality in Microsoft Office can still use the on-premises software that the company still holds licenses for. When employees using Chromebooks need a traditional desktop computer environment, the company uses virtual desktops to compensate.

Still, switching from Office to G Suite involves much more than just getting users to adopt a new user interface. That could prove problematic to businesses, according to David Lavenda, the co-founder of Harmon.ie. His company makes software that helps connect Microsoft Outlook and SharePoint, and ease companies' migrations from Lotus Notes to Office 365. A number of its clients looked at G Suite and ultimately opted to go with Office.

There are many components in the institutional use of a particular office suite, Lavenda said. "There's the support structure behind it, there’s expertise in these organizations knowing how to support these products and knowing where to turn to, and how to fix problems. It’s much more than just getting people to edit documents with a different user interface."

To increase user familiarity with Google's tools, the company acquired Synergyse last year and has been using its e-learning courses to help people get acquainted with Docs, Sheets, and Slides.

Furthermore, the company will actually send its product managers and engineers to help with deployments of G Suite at large customers. Raghavan said a team will arrive at a customer’s work site on the first day of a major deployment and just walk around to help answer questions.

"These are rank-and-file engineers who usually write code," Raghavan said. "And it’s great both ways because the customer feels well taken care of, through the transition. And for an engineer or a product manager, it's a great learning [opportunity], because you’re like 'Oh my God, I never realized that pixel there was confusing.'"

But while Google is continuing to gain traction, Microsoft remains the dominant player in the productivity app market. The Redmond-based titan reported last month it has 85 million monthly active commercial users of Office 365. At least in the near term, G Suite and Office 365 are fighting largely for the chance to pick up customers who are migrating off on-premises versions of Office. Gartner's Mariano pointed out that some enterprises are actually running in hybrid environments where some people are using G Suite and others are using Office.

"It's getting to the point now where enterprises are almost letting them duke it out in real time in the real world," Mariano said. "Which is an interesting thing. We see that a lot in higher education, where the administrative side might be using Office 365, and the student body might be using G Suite."

While it still faces challenges, Google has improved its enterprise compatibility, through its continued enhancements for security and compliance capabilities, as well as deploying features in ways that don't disrupt existing workflows, Moorhead said.

"Every year, they're getting more friendly to the enterprise with their products," he said.

Ringman said Google still has work to do in order to make it possible for Telus International to run its whole business on G Suite. In particular, he called out data sovereignty as a key issue for moving some remaining information into the cloud. Regulations require some Canadian data be stored in-country, and G Suite doesn't yet allow users to store data there.

Google isn't slowing down its introduction of enterprise features. The company kicked 2017 off with an announcement of a set of feature upgrades aimed squarely at solving enterprise security concerns. Google expanded its data-loss prevention features to Drive, added S/MIME to Gmail and allowed administrators to restrict logins to only people with hardware security keys.

Google is planning additional enterprise-focused features for G Suite and the other services covered under its Cloud division. The team is hosting a three-day conference in March, which is expected to feature a suite of announcements aimed at driving its enterprise business forward.

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