The Cart, the Horse, and Google's Business Communications Services
They're not there yet, but at some point in the not so distant future may be able to boast a full and well-integrated set of communications services for business buyers.
Since the beginning of this year Google has been putting its business communications house in order. That house clearly needs some additional renovation and decoration, but it's in a much more presentable state than it ever has been before.
In typical Google fashion, this has been taking place in a series of announcements that on the surface don't always seem to have much to do with one another. So let's take a look at each and try to divine what the company has accomplished and what impact it's likely to have on buyers of business communications systems and services.
It all started back in February when, completely out of left field, Google decided that its next move into business communications would be not so much a new or enhanced service but rather a video conferencing system, namely Chromebox for Meetings.
If you're familiar with some of the $1,000 video conferencing systems that have been trickling onto the market lately, the Google solution offers few surprises. There will be an Asus, Dell, or HP device, a Logitech camera, a Jabra speaker, a Boxee-like remote, and BYOD (Bring Your Own Display). Chromebox for Meetings will use Hangouts as the backend video service, integrate with Gmail's calendar for scheduling, support audio connectivity via UberConference and InterCall, and interoperate with legacy video systems from Vidyo and Blue Jeans. All this is cobbled together into a $999 video conferencing system suitable for huddle rooms.
Things have been mighty quiet since the initial Chromebox for Meetings announcement. It's still not clear when Asus and the rest will start shipping systems, and specs for the Dell and HP boxes remain forthcoming. Hopefully we'll see a new round of product and GA announcements shortly. Looking over what specs are available, Chromebox for Meetings seems like it will be adequate for what it's trying to do, namely allow Hangouts to power connectivity not just between desktops but also small conference rooms. The price of the system is certainly competitive, though the service fees--$250 per system per year for support, $10 per user per month for UberConference, $99 to $149 per concurrent user per month for Vidyo H2O--raise TCO quite a bit.
Businesses Need SLAs...
I initially thought of ChromeBox for Meetings as a cart that needs to be preceded by the horse of a clear strategy for business communications services and solutions. Or, if you prefer, the horse can be a larger portfolio of Google-delivered video conferencing solutions for business. Or the horse could be a proper and better-integrated set of business-class communications services. Or, just to drive the metaphor firmly into the ground, this particular cart should be pulled by the three distinct horses of business communications strategy, business communications services, and portfolio of business-class systems.
I've already touched on the topic of Hangouts vs. Apps as services appropriate for widespread business use in a previous post, so no need to go over all that again now. Suffice it to say that businesses require reliable services, and two ways that providers demonstrate their services as reliable are via SLAs and top-notch customer service.
Top-notch customer service has not historically been a Google forte. There are signs that this is changing, at least for Google's AdWord business, which is reportedly getting 90% customer sat scores (up from 44%), as well as delivering 30-second wait times and video as a channel. It's been three years since Google got serious about customer service for Apps for Business. And in November, Google indicated that "the Google Apps support team will now provide the same level of help for Hangouts as they do for Google Talk, including 24/7 phone support." And the Chromebox for Meetings launch specifically addressed the customer support issue...even if a business needs to pay $250 per system per year for it.
...And Hangouts Now Has Them
Google Apps for Business has long had a published SLA, whereas Hangouts has--at least until very recently--been described as "not part of the core Google Apps suite" and "not covered by the Google Apps support terms and [is] not covered by the Google Apps uptime guarantee SLA." This is no longer the case.
In July, Google announced that Hangouts will be covered under the same Terms of Service that the company offers to Google Apps for Business customers. Google Apps for Business has a guaranteed uptime of 99.9%. It doesn't sound like much at first blush, given that carriers love to boast about five-nines of reliability. But three-nines is on par with what Microsoft offers for Office 365. And three-nines is three nines more than what Google Apps for Business users were getting for Hangouts before.
With the new SLA, Google has connected at least one of the horses to the Chromebox for Meetings horse. And at the same time, it has addressed what I've considered to be one of Hangouts' main deficiencies when it comes to its use for business communications.
Another horse--the "better integrated set of business-class communications services"--is being addressed with Google's announcement that users can place phone calls directly from Hangouts. This wasn't a business-specific announcement, so it's unclear to me if Google Apps for Business's SLA, which now encompasses Hangouts, would also cover the voice calling service that's now available via Hangouts. (I'm guessing not.)
And in another announcement, this one in June, Google started promoting Hangouts integration with web-based business apps such as SmartSheet, myERP, ZenDesk, and Zoho Connect. This has the potential of making Hangouts more relevant in the enterprise than ever, as it provides the real-time comms component for applications that otherwise lack real-time comms capabilities.
Despite all this activity, I think Google still has its work cut out for it when positioning itself as a trusted provider of business communications services. Google Apps for Business may be a viable alternative to Office 365 in the market for office productivity software. But Hangouts is still no Lync, or even Lync Online. It's clearly still suffering from "new product syndrome," with part of this week's big announcement being calendar integration...a feature that all mature video conferencing solutions support.
Yet Google is making clear, distinct, and very welcome steps to remedy things, and at some point in the not so distant future may be able to boast a full and well-integrated set of communications services for business buyers.