Google+ tremors rattle Apps suite

Vic Gundotra's departure raises questions about the social network's future, including its role for enterprise customers

The surprising departure of Google+ chief Vic Gundotra has ignited uncertainty and speculation about the product's future, including its place in the workplace Apps suite.

Even before Gundotra's resignation last week, the company's plans for Google+ in the enterprise were unclear. While Google makes it possible for Apps admins to turn on Google+ for their domain users, the social networking site isn't a core, supported component of that email and collaboration suite.

Google has added some IT admin and developer features to Google+ and to its Hangouts video/audio communications component, but the product isn't a full-featured enterprise social network like Microsoft's Yammer and IBM's Connections, or an enterprise unified communications (UC) system like Microsoft's Lync and others from Cisco, Avaya and Alcatel-Lucent.

Now Google's tentative, slow march to take Google+ to the enterprise has been compounded by the firestorm over Gundotra's abrupt exit, which has triggered speculation that the product's scope could be significantly scaled back because it didn't become a viable Facebook competitor in the consumer market.

Analysts say Google needs to make a clear statement regarding its plans for Google+ in general and for the enterprise customers in particular.

"They need to be very clear on product road map, both in features and timing, in order for people to trust that Google+ is not the next Google Reader," said Constellation Research analyst Alan Lepofsky, referring to the popular RSS manager Google discontinued.

For TJ Keitt, a Forrester Research analyst, the message from Google is overdue. "They should have discussed the future of Google+ as part of Google Apps a while ago," Keitt said.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and Microsoft in particular is moving aggressively to make up the ground it ceded in the cloud email and collaboration market when Google jumped ahead and released Apps about 7 years ago.

"Google had a great chance to make some inroads into the enterprise by combining Gmail/Calendar, Google Apps, Drive and Google+ with a 2 to 3 year lead on Microsoft," Lepofsky said.

Now, Microsoft has put together a compelling offering with Office 365, Yammer and OneDrive. "Advantage Microsoft," Lepofsky said.

Google didn't immediately comment on what its current plans are for Google+ in the Google Apps suite.

The search giant had lofty expectations for Google+ when it launched the social networking site almost three years ago. CEO Larry Page, Gundotra and other high-ranking executives said Google+ would tie together most Google products by giving them a common social and identity layer.

Soon after Google+'s launch, the company started tying the product aggressively to many of its other web applications and services, a strategy that prompted complaints from users who felt forced to adopt the product and link it with other Google activities.

So far, Google+ hasn't undermined Facebook's position as the world's largest social networking service.

The speculation and reports following the news of Gundotra's exit have been very pessimistic. Quoting anonymous sources, technology news sites Re/code and Techcrunch separately reported that Google+'s staff and main features -- like its activity stream, photos and Hangouts -- may be spun off and attached to other products.

Asked for comment, a Google spokeswoman said via email that the announcement last week "has no impact on our Google+ strategy -- we have an incredibly talented team that will continue to build great user experiences across Google+, Hangouts and Photos."

If reports that Google+ will be broken up into pieces are true, the activity stream is likely to end up in some form in Apps so that the suite can stand up competitively against Office 365 and Yammer, according to Forrester's Keitt. He also said it's likely Hangouts will be a core part of Apps, given Google's moves to strengthen its offerings for workplace video conferencing.

In February, Google launched a hardware bundle called Chromebox for Meetings that is designed to work best in conjunction with Apps, and the company also co-developed with Vidyo software that links Hangouts with legacy video conferencing systems.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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