Google may be moving too slowly in building up Google Apps' enterprise social networking (ESN) features, at a time when this type of software has become a key component in workplace collaboration suites.
On Wednesday, the company took another small step in its effort to tailor its Google+ consumer social networking site into one that Apps customers can use to boost collaboration among their employees.
Although moves in that direction are welcome for the Apps email and collaboration suite, Google might do well to speed up the pace, since demand for ESN software has been growing robustly, a trend expected to intensify in coming years.
"We have to think about this as the art of the possible," said Forrester Research analyst Rob Koplowitz, referring to the development of Google+'s ESN capabilities.
ESN software provides Facebook- and Twitter-like functionality adapted for workplace use, including employee profiles, activity streams, microblogging, document sharing, content rating, blogging, discussion groups and online communities.
Spending on ESN products grew almost 40 percent last year to US$767.4 million, and is expected to increase at a 42 percent compound rate through 2016, when it will reach almost $4.5 billion, according to IDC.
Microsoft recently paid $1.2 billion to acquire ESN vendor Yammer, a deal intended to boost enterprise social collaboration capabilities in SharePoint, Office, Dynamics and other Microsoft products.
IBM, VMware and Cisco have added ESN components to their broader enterprise collaboration suites, while Oracle and Salesforce.com have done the same to their broader enterprise application stacks. And there is a thriving ecosystem of pure-play ESN vendors like NewsGator, Jive Software and Telligent.
Although Apps was launched in 2006, Google only started working on an ESN component last year, when it made it possible for Apps administrators to offer Google+ to their end users as part of their suite.
This week, Google threw in an initial set of IT controls to let Apps administrators set companywide default restriction settings for Google+ posts and multiparty video conferencing via the Hangouts feature. These IT controls are available to customers using the Education, Government and Business editions of Apps.
End users can also individually mark their posts as restricted, which makes it impossible to re-share them outside of their organization's domain.
Google+ also gained the ability to append Hangouts to a Calendar event, making it possible for users to join the video conference directly from the Calendar invite or entry. This feature is available to both consumer and Apps users of Google+.
Previously, Hangouts had been integrated in similar ways with both Gmail and the Docs office productivity applications, again for consumers and Apps users.
But as ESN software goes, these capabilities are pretty slim.
"I hope what they're doing is providing more than just a private Google+," said Alan Lepofsky, a Constellation Research analyst. "If it's just about posting private comments, then that's a big failure."
A Google official said that a lot more is coming.
"The key point of this launch is that we are just getting started," said Clay Bavor, Google Apps product management director.
In fact, Google is making a point of calling this initial launch of Google+ enterprise features a "preview" that Apps administrators have the option to enable -- or not -- for their domain's end users at no additional charge until further notice. The Education edition is free, while the Business and Government editions cost $50 per user per year, or $5 per user per month.
A key, absent feature, according to Lepofsky, is an activity stream in employees' Google+ profiles where notifications of actions by their colleagues are displayed, such as when someone creates a document or posts a comment.
"They need broadcast notifications in the stream," he said.
Another Apps component that could be boosted through integration with Google+ is the Sites website-building application, Lepofsky said.
Bavor concurred that linking Google+ with Sites has a lot of upside potential.
"When you combine this tool [Sites] for structuring and organizing information, with the sharing capabilities of Google+, interesting things can happen," he said. "We're considering and evaluating all our options with Sites there."
Forrester's Koplowitz said that a full ESN version of Google+, along with the suite's existing functionality in Gmail, Docs and the other components, could make Apps very attractive to prospective customers.
However, Google isn't helping itself by being so tight-lipped about its road map and plans, because enterprise IT professionals need clear statements of commitment and direction from their vendors, he said.
Since the Apps components all started as consumer applications -- Gmail, Docs, Calendar, Sites -- their future destiny and development seem tied to their popularity among consumers, he said.
This is problematic in the case of Google+, which some industry observers maintain hasn't fulfilled the company's popularity expectations among consumers.
In the past year, Google has been anything but shy about axing products that it considers outdated, unpopular or redundant, an aggressive pruning effort mandated by CEO Larry Page.
"Google+ looks like a compelling enterprise offering, but, if it doesn't get traction in the consumer space, will Google continue to invest in it as an enterprise-only product? Will it pull the plug?" Koplowitz said. "That keeps me up at night a bit."
Bavor disputes the premise that Google+ is on shaky ground in the consumer market, pointing out that the social networking service has 150 million active users, with growth fueled by strong momentum.
He also said that the company's strategy for Google+ both among consumers and Apps users is to enmesh it in the fabric of Google's other products.
In fact, the push to make Google+ a ubiquitous presence across Google products is one element that will differentiate it from competing offerings, he said.
"We are deeply committed to Google+," he said. "We see it as being a cornerstone for the entire Google consumer and enterprise user experience."
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.