Google's $50 (£25) Google Apps Premier Edition hosted office productivity suite could be one of the cheapest mistakes a large business makes, according to research firm the Burton Group.

The company said Google Apps Premier Edition offers lots of good value for business users, but lacks strong regulatory compliance features and poor administrative tools for user accounts. That means a quick deployment in a large business could be a "career-limiting move" for IT staffers who advocate its use without knowing of its shortcomings.

In his 55-page study, Burton Group analyst Guy Creese said that Google Apps Premier Edition has energised the market for software-as-a-service (SaaS) products. But it is primarily based on a similar free, consumer-focused Google Apps productivity suite that doesn't convert easily for large corporate use.

"Initially combining a portal, email, instant messaging, calendars, document sharing and concurrent document creation - all for the price of $50 per user per year - the solution rapidly caught enterprises' imaginations," Creese wrote. "Unfortunately, quickly adopting Google Apps Premier Edition without understanding its quirks or looking at other alternatives is likely to become a career-limiting move."

While usability is generally good - except for users who build complex spreadsheets - critical data security and regulatory compliance features are missing, Creese said. "I would say that a lot of people would view this as a potential [Microsoft] Office replacement," he said. "One of the main sorts of architectural problems Google has right now is that these products were created for consumers."

As a result, IT administrators can't add users in groups with the same general rights, making the creation and administration of user accounts slow and cumbersome because they have to be set up individually, Creese said. "If you're a large enterprise looking to deploy this corporate-wide, it is an issue."

On the records management and compliance issue, Google is not the only SaaS vendor with shortcomings, Creese said. "Typically, I get major silence" when vendors are asked how they deal with those issues, he said.

Google's offering allows spreadsheets to be saved and preserved in groups for later access, although word processing documents can only be saved individually, a time-consuming process, Creese said. "And that gets legal departments nervous [because] they're on the hook for the documents" with no easy way to retrieve them. "For a small to medium-size business, that's not a big thing. But for a large business, that doesn't really cut it."

Not all the news is bad, though, according to Creese.

While Google Apps Premier Edition may not yet be fully featured for large business users, Google "has done a service to the marketplace by legitimising this" approach, he said. Other major vendors, such as Salesforce.com and Microsoft - with its popular Office suite - are moving into the SaaS office productivity market on Google's heels, adding credibility to the concept. "I think a large part of this is just the brand recognition that Google gets with this. But I am not convinced that they will ultimately win the battle."

In the report, Creese wrote that SaaS-based products are not always a good fit for companies. "For example, some SaaS solutions assume that an internet connection is always available; financial institutions prefer that corporate information be stored behind the corporate firewall; and support via a website can be a shock to companies used to frequent face-to-face meetings with suppliers," he wrote.

"Rushing into a decision is typically a bad move when looking at any new system. But the Google Apps Premier Edition decision is especially difficult because it demands that enterprises bet on a delivery model [SaaS], a product [Google Apps] and a company [Google] that are all less than a decade old," he wrote. "Furthermore, the offering is somewhat difficult to understand because its features are generic enough that it can function - in limited cases - as a replacement for Microsoft Office, as an enterprise content management system, and as a collaboration and communications system. In addition, the product is still evolving."

"While the $50 per user per year price point is attractive, enterprises are not getting a lot for their money," he wrote.

Creese called the situation in the overall marketplace similar to the emergence of the Netscape web browser in '94 - '95, when Microsoft missed the initial internet launch and had to play catch-up. "It's a real race," Creese said. "In the end, I think this is all good for enterprises. The market is still immature. While [enterprise users] should pay attention, I don't think it's time to rush into things."

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