UC Options for Google Apps

There is no mystery around how to integrate communications with Microsoft's productivity software. Lync is part of the Office suite and fully integratable--if integratable is a word--with Exchange and whatnot. Ditto with Lync Online and Office 365. But what if you're one of the "over 5 million" businesses with 50 million end users opting for Google when it comes to office productivity software? What are your options for integrating communications with Google Apps?

You have several, as it turns out. You'll have to work with a third party, at least for now, since Google hasn't got its business comms software house in order just yet. But it can certainly be done, and here I'll look at a few ways how.

When talking about comms-enabling Google Apps, it makes sense to start with Esna Technologies. This is the company that's been at it a long time and has become a specialist in integrating a wide range of UC solutions with an equally wide range of business applications. The company has about 10,000 customers overall with more than 1 million end users, about half of whom use Esna's Officelinx for Google Apps, according to CEO Mohammed Nezarati. Customers include Office Depot, PR firm Oglivy, and biotech giant Roche, the last of which has selected and is in the process of deploying Officelinx for its 80,000 employees.

When these companies moved from Microsoft Exchange to Gmail, they lost the unified messaging capabilities inherent to the former and absent from the latter, Nezarati explained. So they have deployed Officelinx either to act as the voice mail component and make messages available via Gmail, or to integrate with a voice mail system on-premise (Cisco Unity Connection now, Avaya later). This is, in fact, the primary use case for Officelinx for Google Apps, with the majority of customers using it for unified messaging as opposed to more central UC functionality.

Officelinx also makes standard UC features available via Google Apps. It can integrate with Cisco Unified Presence, for example, allowing Jabber and Google Talk to share presence information and initiate chat sessions. From Gmail, users can view their call history and click to call or conference, with their company's PBX or hosted voice service providing the telephony capabilities.

Officelinx for Google Apps can be integrated with premise-based PBXs from Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, Asterisk, Avaya, Cisco, Mitel, ShoreTel, and Unify, as well as with hosted telephony services based on Broadsoft, Sonus, and Cisco HCS. Allstream, Flexity, Sprint, and West IP are among the providers reselling Officelinx in conjunction with Google Apps, Microsoft Office 365, Zimbra, Jive, Salesforce.com, and other cloud-based business apps.

If Esna is a generalist--integrating many UC solutions to many business apps--then gUnify is a specialist. This two-year-old start-up focuses specifically on integrating certain providers' Broadsoft-based hosted UC services with Google Apps in a way that is straightforward for customers to adopt. From Gmail, users can click to dial, initiate conference calls utilizing gUnify's conferencing service, view others' presence, run phone usage reports, sync contacts, log calls, and make notes that are uploaded to Salesforce.com, Zoho, or another CRM solution.

In part, gUnify is differentiating from Esna based on feature set. Call logging and CRM integration, for example, are not part of Esna's Officelinx for Google Apps. Also, gUnify is looking to differentiate itself based on delivery method, with its offering being an entirely cloud-based service that requires no browser plugin. Instead, gUnify uses a Google gadget that resides within Gmail, allowing businesses to have the service up and running in 10 minutes, according to CEO Crisantos Hajibrahim. This entirely cloud-based delivery model also simplifies the provisioning process for gUnify's service provider partners. By contrast, Esna requires a server on the customer premises when integrating with a premises-based PBX.

Hajibrahim told me that going forward, gUnify may support hosted UC services based on underlying technology other than Broadsoft. But he plans on keeping the company focused on integrating Google Apps with cloud-based UC services, not premises-based UC solutions.

And he expects the company to remain focused on the Google opportunity, as opposed to providing UC integration for a wider range of business apps. This is because Google Apps resellers tend to struggle making much in the way of margin by simply reselling office productivity software. GUnify is counting on them looking for a bundled solution that includes business telephony and CRM without requiring them to become telephony or CRM specialists.

You'd think that with all these partners busy with Google integration, Broadsoft would steer clear. But the company recently entered into a partnership with Google, and at the same time introduced Xtended Dialer for Chrome. As the name implies, the dialer isn't specifically tied to Google Apps. When I saw CTO Scott Hoffpauir demo it at this year's Broadsoft Connections conference, he showed the plug-in giving users access to call history records, letting them activate DND and other call features, enabling audible call announcement, facilitating click-to-dial from Chrome, and so forth. So it provides a subset of the features available via the various Google Apps integrations. And unlike Esna and gUnify's services, Xtended Dialer for Chrome has been released as open source for Broadsoft partners and customers to customize as they see fit.

Other approaches to baking UC into Google Apps include Verizon's Virtual Communications Express (VCE), a Broadsoft-based hosted UC service for SMBs. There's a VCE app on the Google Apps Marketplace, which lets users click to call from Gmail, as well as view others' presence state.

A couple years back, Unify introduced OpenScape Fusion for Google Apps, an extension that's pre-built into OpenScape UC and facilitates click-to-dial, audio conferencing, contacts sync, and single number reach. More recently Unify has said Google Apps integration will be included in its upcoming Ansible solution.

Digium has had Google Apps integration baked into Asterisk since release 1.4. Five years back, Eric did a quick write-up of Voice Mobility integrating its ESN 250 unified messaging solution with Google Apps. And a few months ago Vodafone told me it plans to integrate its One Net hosted UC service with Google Apps, something that it's in the process of doing with Office 365.

Google's UC Plans
I wonder, though, about the future of Esna, gUnify, and the other UC integrations with Google Apps. Google has been flirting with communications software and services for years. Google Talk allows free calling to PSTN numbers, a service that Esna and gUnify have disabled in their integrations. If a user wants to place a call via their solutions, the call needs to go through the PBX or Broadsoft service. Certain Google Voice features have been disabled as well, such as voice mail and voice mail transcription, which Esna has turned off since its software does this.

There are persistent rumors that Google will "bring Google+ into Google Apps as a back-end communications system." Depending on how this is implemented, this could obviate the need for integrations with third-party UC solutions, since the business communications functionality would be coming from Google itself.

Looking at this another way.... Hangouts is already listed on the Google Apps for Business product page as one that enables "chat, phone and video calls." But, as I noted recently, this is more wishful thinking than reality. Sure, Hangouts provides video conferencing that can be used for business purposes. Sure, users can add telephone participants (up to five) to a Hangouts session. Sure, users can dial phone numbers from Gmail. But these comms features are not business-grade as of yet. I think of them more as services that are great for consumers, usable by business, but in no way on par with communications solutions and services designed specifically for the enterprise.

Google seems to be planning enhancements to Hangouts to make it more of a formal enterprise communications platform. We'll see if they can pull that off, but for now if you're looking for business communications for your Google Apps service, Apps integration with a business comms solution or service is the way to go.

Links to the solutions mentioned in this blog in the Google Apps Marketplace:

* Esna Technologies Officelinx for Google Apps
* gUnify
* Unify OpenScape Fusion for Google Apps
* Google UC for Verizon
* Voice Mobility UCN 250 for Google Apps

Follow Brian Riggs on Twitter and Google+!
@brian_riggs
Brian Riggs on Google+