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Google and the Cuculus Strategy

This article appears in the issue March 2009 (100 Companies) [Volume 18, Issue 3]
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Google’s enterprise strategy can be difficult to pin down. A while ago, I attended a lecture at a museum in Denmark, and learned about a remarkable bird and its clever behavior.

These birds are in the subfamily Cuculidae in the genus Cuculus. They wait until another bird is preoccupied, then, with the coast clear, the Cuculi will lay an egg in the other bird’s nest. When the bird that built the nest returns, the Cuculi gets a free ride. No nest building, thank you, and even better, another bird keeps the unhatched Cuculi eggs warm.

Cuculi are competitive. They will even push eggs or the other chicks out of the nest to take over the food supply.

When I learned about this behavior, I thought, "That’s what Google is doing."

This autumn I met with a small group of U.K. investigators. The subject of Google Maps came up even though we were talking about general trends in open source intelligence.

"Google Maps," said one senior official, "those are must-haves in our unit."

When I asked why, the response, which I am paraphrasing, is useful in understanding how Google is perceived in organizational settings:

"Those Google Maps are wonderful. I can pinpoint a location, find a route and see the lay of the land before I arrive. One of our young computer whizzes put our own data on top of the local map. I could hover my mouse over a flag and see the information in our files about that particular location."

Notice that this accidental Google cheerleader did not talk about search, advertising or browsers. A 55-year-old government professional saw Google as a better solution to a tough problem—knowing how to get from A to B and having pertinent information "pop up."

I concluded that Google’s enterprise approach relies on providing useful services and letting 55-year-old officials do the selling. Microsoft and Salesforce.com define a goal and unleash regular sales troops and paid mercenaries. Not Google.

I have noticed that Google’s Enterprise Division dialed in more product and marketing horsepower in the run-up to the year’s end. Google appears to have become more active on several different fronts in the battle for the enterprise markets. What makes the developments significant is that the weakening U.S. economy is feared to presage lower online advertising revenues. Therefore, enterprise revenues have become more important to Google.

First, the uptake of the Google Search Appliance continues to be strong if Google’s comments at the September Enterprise Search Summit West were accurate. The company has licensed more than 24,000 Google Search Appliances. The prices published on the U.S. General Services Administration Advantage site reveal that Google is making upgrades from the GB 1001 device to the more robust GB 5005, GB 7007 and GB 8008 financially attractive. For as little as $2,000 per month, a licensee can jump from the GB 1001 to the 4 million document capacity GB 5005. Google’s strategy of seeding the market with Google Minis and GB 1001s appears to be part of an upgrade push that will expand the Google Search Appliance’s presence in the enterprise market.

Second, Google has slowly and steadily built on the original Google Docs product line. In the last few months, Google has added features to its Calendar and Gmail services. One of the most interesting innovations is the addition of video chat to Gmail. The functionality of the product provides Skype-like telephony and video conferencing to Gmail users. Skype, when I last used the service, had more than 14 million users online at 9 a.m. Eastern time on Nov. 17, 2008. Google’s potential reach is probably as wide, maybe even greater.

Skype works well, but it is a service that does not provide a comprehensive information environment like Google’s. Furthermore, Google offers what some users may perceive as a more integrated experience. If one "lives in" Gmail, Skype remains a separate application that is outside of the Googleplex’s ecosystem of services.

Third, at the Web 2.0 conference in November 2008, David Girouard, the top enterprise Googler, hinted at making the Google Apps a development platform. The media jumped on Girouard’s announcement, but it was "old news." Google had days earlier revealed its intentions in Web log posts across its network of more than 70 Web logs. Google announced a Google Apps hackathon in two locations—Ann Arbor, Mich., and Atlanta, Ga. The purpose of those events, for which pre-registration was required, was to provide examples and information about building applications for enterprise Google Apps.

Finally, Google began playing hardball with Sun Microsystems. Google removed StarOffice, a project supported by Sun Microsystems’ open source group, from the Google Pack. Google Pack provides a suite of utilities that Google "certifies." Instead of StarOffice, Google includes its own word processing, spreadsheet and presentation tools. Sun Microsystems inked a deal to bundle Microsoft’s desktop toolbar, which includes Microsoft’s Live.com search function with the Sun Java virtual machine technology. Java, like Adobe Flash, has become one of the must-have browser add-ons. The breach between Google and Sun Microsystems suggests the seriousness of Google’s ramped up enterprise initiatives.

Those four developments are interesting to me. But Google has made two other tactical moves that may be of greater consequence. Let’s look at service level agreements (SLAs) and analytics and then risk a look forward into 2009.

A service level agreement is little more than a guarantee of a minimum level of service. It provides enterprise customers with a guarantee that a particular service will be available a specified period of time and meet specific minimum levels of performance. The metrics of an SLA can be quite complex, but the idea is that if a vendor does not meet the specification, the customer either gets a discount or some other consideration. Google has a number of SLA-related patent documents: for example, US7142536, filed in late 2000. But Google held back and began offering SLAs for its Apps suite in October 2008.

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