Google introduces customized home pages for groups

Google Inc. introduced on Monday the first upgrade to its business software line, offering organisations a way to give individual employees or group members a personalised home page.

The new personalised home page feature for organizations functions as a central access point for Google Apps -- short for applications -- a set of web-based business software aimed at small business users, which Google introduced in August.

The Google Apps start page is a stripped-down version of the central overview that office workers see in Outlook from Microsoft Corp. or Lotus Notes from IBM. All three offer links to email, calendar and other features.

Businesses, schools and non-profit groups can now set up individual Google home pages with shared news feeds, calendars, and expense systems, among various options. The rest is defined by users, who can add dozens of instantly updating features.

"The real difference here is that Google is pushing a powerful tool to companies for free," said Chris Hazelton, an analyst of small-business collaboration tools with IDC based in Framingham, Massachusetts.

At first glance, Google start pages are nothing more than what any consumer gets for free from the personalised home page service on What's new is that groups can now offer custom home pages to employees, students or group members.

Anticipating Google's moves, Microsoft, the world's biggest software maker, has responded by introducing Windows "Live" -- Web-based software for small business and consumers.

Google's main appeal remains to users of its web search and ad systems. By packaging business software, it is responding to demands by network administrators who prefer to manage a standard set of software for organizations. Many are cracking down on individual consumer programs within their networks.

"Organisations and users want that same level of usability from Google products," Mike Horowitz, product manager for the Google Apps start page feature, said of demands by businesses.

In industry jargon, the organisational home page feature is akin to web-based "employee portals" like Microsoft SharePoint, which collaboration software makers provide to organizations.

"This is not a walled garden, which is really what portals have become," Horowitz said.

It gives a group's technical administrator control over the structure of the main page and common elements down the left side, while individuals can tweak it for their interests.

The home page is part of Google's new business software package, "Google Apps for Your Domain," which includes Gmail email, Google Talk text and phone calling, Google Calendar group scheduling and a web page design tool.

Google declines to discuss specific numbers but says it has signed up thousands of schools, tens of thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of users worldwide for Apps.

For now, Google downplays its competition with Microsoft, saying what it offers is simpler and aimed at small business.

"Office is the antithesis of what we are talking about," Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt told a business school conference at Stanford University on Saturday. "We are talking about lightweight tools where the emphasis is on sharing."

Analysts say Google is just taking a step-by-step approach to creating a potential mass-market substitute for Office.

"They (Google) don't want to go directly against Microsoft Office. Google Apps is not yet a viable replacement for the mass base of users," Hazelton said.

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