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Google Apps, Office Live give small fry big upgrade

James Coates
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Last Thursday, the Googlers launched their long-awaited attack on the Microsofties' 800-pound-gorilla dominance of the business software gold mine. You know, the software behind that monitor sitting on your desk at work.

Both schemes use the Internet to store the software and documents created by users instead of Microsoft's traditional system that is nailed down to the server computers owned by the business in question.

So today, let's look from a small fry's garret at what each monster tech company offers.

Google first. The idea is to replace corporate servers and software by using Google's amazing array of football-field-size server farms filled with computers cobbled together with Velcro and duct tape.

Beyond its impact on small and big businesses, the new offering called Google Apps pretty much lets us lone wolves acquire the computing powers of a Fortune 500 firm on our humble laptops and desktops wherever it is we may fire them up.

We're talking here about the functionality of Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel and, best of all, Microsoft Outlook, the omnibus programs for calendar use, contact storing, task management, e-mail reading and e-mail writing.

I say best of all about Outlook because one of Microsoft's most lucrative products has been software called Microsoft Exchange Server, which lets users of Outlook share calendars and tasks, store and dispense employee e-mail and otherwise connect the desktops of an enterprise (enterprise is IT talk for outfit with big bucks and lots of servers).

Google's announcement Thursday got substantial fanfare, but little new was disclosed because uncounted numbers of us Google subscribers have been using the whole package for more than a year as so-called beta testers.

Just about everybody with a Google e-mail address has been a beta tester of some aspect of this huge package of business-strength software that Google's storied pack of programmers built and continue to build.

Beyond letting a group of people acquire unlimited e-mail accounts for reading and writing while using Web browsers from the PC, Mac and Linux worlds, these accounts contain a calendar that looks simple as solitaire but links to a set of scheduling and contact managing tools. In rivaling the Outlook module in Microsoft Office, they also can be shared and coordinated by network servers just as is done with Outlook on Exchange Server.

If you are a five-person small business, a busy family or a company with thousands of employees, this stuff is either free for the taking or, for enterprise users, licensed far below Microsoft fees.

While analysts, journalists and hobbyists focus on Google's killer offerings, little attention is paid to Microsoft's fast and furious work to match this Internet-based scheme for business and small-fry computer networking.

The Office Live program does much of the same stuff for networking over the Web. It's a counterintuitive Microsoft product that gives a business (or a propeller head) the opportunity to bypass the expensive Exchange Server system to share and collaborate, network-style.

Office Live got nearly lost during the past month, eclipsed all but totally by the furor over the Jan. 30 simultaneous release of the Vista operating system and the new Microsoft Office 2007 with beefed-up versions of Word, Excel and Outlook, among others.

Office Live can be test-driven free for a month; it then offers plans that cost $19.95 or $39.95 a month. While a double sawbuck per month is a lot more than Google's free offering, it's much cheaper than other ways to network a business, particularly a small business when funds are tight.

The heart of Office Live is creating an Internet home page that can serve as a rudimentary online store; display a list of links to other resources; offer a political harangue for a candidate's campaign and whatever else you'd like.

Behind the Web site is a workspace where your associates can log on to read e-mail, check calendars, send instant messages and contribute to documents that can range from letters to sales reports.

As you can see, either Google Apps or Microsoft Office Live is exactly what one needs when setting up an enterprise where workers use the Internet as a virtual office that can be accessed from almost anywhere.

Many small-business people and freelancers are hungry for this kind of hand-holding and service. When I wrote a column called Ask Jim for Business, I got a flood of questions from folks confused about two things that just about everybody needs these days - a good-looking Web site and a way to share calendars, contacts and work product with employees or even special customers.

With a $19.95 Office Live deal you get 20 e-mail accounts, an Outlook-caliber calendar and contact tool and a serious collaboration module. Ditto Google, only there it's free.

(Binary beat readers can participate in the column at chicagotribune.com/askjim, or e-mail jcoates1 at aol.com. Snail-mail him in Room 400, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611.)

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