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SANTA CLARA -- When Google announced Docs & Spreadsheets in 2006, the conventional wisdom was that startups offering similar online applications for business were dead meat.
In fact, some said the days were numbered even for Microsoft Office.
Jonathan Rochelle, product manager for Google Docs & Spreadsheets, wouldn't disclose how many employees are working on its office products, nor the direction Google plans for the offering.
He did say that his team felt more like a startup, however. "We don't approach things like this by putting the whole company on it," he said.
Rochelle and Raju Vegesna, evangelist for Zoho, a maker of online office applications, agreed that software that could run both on the desktop and in the cloud might speed enterprise adoption, because connectivity is still far from ubiquitous. Google has no plans to work on such integration, but Vegesna said that's what Zoho is aiming for.
Yet integration between online office applications and premise-based enterprise applications is still problematic, said Ismael Ghalimi, CEO of Intalio, a provider of Web-based business performance management.
Following the trajectory of mobile applications, most Web-based office apps are entering the enterprise at the grassroots level, as tech-happy employees sign up for the services for free or pay for them with personal credit cards. As that happens, IT's power wanes, speakers said.
"The enterprise is being dictated to by its users," said Robert Rueckert, senior investment manager for Intel Capital.
While not all business users have the expertise or desire to evaluate the new breed of enterprise applications, "You have a new crop of users who are more aware," said David Greenfield, principal of Strategic Technology Analytics, an IT consulting firm. "We've seen it before with IM."
At the same time, organizations still need to maintain a central concentration of computing expertise, Greenfield told InternetNews.com. If IT is smart, he said, "They'll befriend the über-user, who becomes an extension of the IT department."
Social networking applications are even more likely to enter the workplace from the bottom up. Youngsters grow up using Facebook, MySpace and the like, so that when they enter the workforce, they're already up to speed. This is a driver of adoption and also a benefit to employers, said Anshu Sharma, senior director of platform strategy for Salesforce.com.
While training new employees used to cost millions, "the cost of training has shifted from the employer to the employee on his own time," he told the conference audience. "This cost is now amortized across society."
Getting enough adoption to make the information and connections revealed by social networking valuable still takes work. For example, BEA Systems, which released the AquaLogic suite of three products for enterprise social computing last year, found that not everyone wants to take the trouble to tag content, for example.
"The challenge is the inertia: I have to do more work and don't necessarily benefit," said Ajay Gandhi, BEA's senior director of enterprise social computing.
One benefit to enterprise social networking -- the "reputation factor" -- may take a while for to kick in. As people participate and add information to the system, executives can recognize them as experts, which in turn has a beneficial impact on the organization.
"The best ideas float to the top," Gandhi said. "When an executive sees someone besides the product manager as the expert, it motivates the product manager to contribute."
Greenfield said his clients are very curious about social media, especially about the possibility that these applications could improve collaboration -- and therefore, the bottom line.
"But purchase plans are more limited and restrictive," he said. "Beyond the hype, folks are probably more money on other areas like virtualization or data center changes. Enterprise 2.0 is much further down the road."
This article was first published on ASPNews.com.