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Customization issues hinder enterprise cloud productivity app adoption

Experts say that difficulty customizing cloud-based productivity apps can hinder their adoption in larger enterprises.

Enterprises today have no lack of cloud-based productivity applications at their disposal. Aside from Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365, cloud-based versions of accounting software, social media management tools and collaboration programs offer nearly all the features of their client-server counterparts but without the messy installs, making them ideal for small to midsize businesses. While collaboration features prove to be the breakthrough feature, experts say that not being able to customize the offering to fit their environments currently can hinder adoption in larger enterprises.

Microsoft Office 365, for example, offers all the features of an installed version of Office in terms of word processing, spreadsheet manipulation, presentations and other productivity applications. Microsoft lets users customize in SharePoint, but as for the multi-tenant version of 365, customization is absent, according to Lee Stevens, founder of London-based consultancy Collabor8. Users of 365 can only customize it with third-party applications, he said.

"The customizations you can do [in 365] are fluffier," Stevens said, noting that most of the third-party applications only allow for interface customizations. Large companies want features and .NET development, and many of them want to have total control over productivity applications by hosting it on their own servers, he added.

There are currently three big players in the enterprise-ready market: Microsoft Office 365, Google Apps and IBM's SmartCloud, according to TJ Keitt, senior analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. However, enterprise-ready is a subjective term, he said.

"A lot of companies ask us questions regarding are all these things secure, reliable, and can they scale to my organization," Keitt said. "What it usually breaks down to is the organization's comfort level with the vision that each vendor has." This can include the hosting model, multi-tenant versions of the software and hybrid hosting models, he said.

Enterprises can easily use any of the big three, according to Keitt. "If you go through the customer lists of Google, Microsoft, even IBM, you'd find organizations of all shapes and sizes," he said. "We see many different types of organizations feasibly using these offerings to deliver communications, collaboration and productivity services to employees."

Different cloud productivity apps, different enterprise value

Enterprise veteran Peter Kirwan, president and CEO of Collexion, a social e-commerce website based in Del Mar, Calif., has seen the value of using cloud computing from his days implementing large-scale cloud computing projects. Collexion uses Google Apps, among other tools, for productivity and collaboration because of the ease of access to data for remote employees and contractors. "For example, our attorneys can access all our scanned documents and other documents through [Google's] secure access," he said.

There are currently three big players in the enterprise-ready market: Microsoft Office 365, Google Apps and IBM’s SmartCloud, according to TJ Keitt, senior analyst, Forrester Research.

Kirwan has seen larger, more conservative companies eyeballing cloud-based productivity applications, but gingerly. "Whether they will pull the trigger, there's still that inertia," he said. However, the ability for Google Apps to authenticate third-party applications, such as wikis and project management tools, may make it a more compelling proposition as the reality of cutting costs, upgrading servers and managing desktops sets in, he added.

Austin, Texas-based technology provider Asure Software has already been reaping the benefits of Google Apps's collaboration tools, according to Steven Rodriguez, chief operating officer. In the early days of its deployment, the time and attendance software for one of Asure's clients crashed and was down for three days, resulting in 24,000 punches being missed. These punches needed to be input into the payroll system, and by using a single Google Apps spreadsheet shared among three of Asure's offices, Asure was able to enter all 24,000 punches in four hours of work. "We never would have been able to do that in an on-premises or standalone environment. It would have required 20 different versions of the spreadsheet and a control test," he said.

Google Apps was Asure's choice because, at the time they were choosing cloud-based productivity software, Google was developing Hangout, and Microsoft only had GoToMeeting, Rodriguez said. Since the implementation, he has also found working on the go easier, with the only holdouts being the finance department's insistence on using Microsoft Excel, he said.

Each offering, whether it's Google Apps, Microsoft Office 365 or IBM's SmartCloud, has its own hook for enterprises making the switch, said Forrester's Keitt. Microsoft's advantage is its familiarity. "Microsoft technology is ubiquitous in enterprises. What Microsoft really offers is the ability to retain the familiar applications that employees have grown accustomed to, but deliver them in the cloud," he said.

The rest of the offerings out there, such as Zoho, are better suited to small businesses, according to Keitt. When Zoho first came out, larger organizations showed interest, but most aren't looking at products like Zoho anymore. "You don't hear from enterprise customers asking much about it at this point in time, nor really is it [Zoho's] strategy to pursue the enterprise market," he said.

For enterprises looking at cloud productivity apps, it appears the experts have narrowed the field to Google, Microsoft and IBM offerings. From there, it's up to the enterprise which features fit best into their business model. Both the IT and security departments need to sign off on the choice, and that will be the final deciding factor, Keitt said.

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