New offering poses direct threat to Microsoft's SharePoint.
Google said on Wednesday it is offering a simple Web site publishing tool for office workers to set up and run their team collaboration sites, taking aim at Microsoft's rival SharePoint franchise.
Google Sites, as the new site publishing service is known, is a scaled back version of JotSpot, an easy-to-edit service for organizations and individuals to set up and edit Web sites that Google had acquired 16 months ago for undisclosed terms.
The new service, the latest stage in the Internet leader's push into the market for business and educational users, allows non-technical users to organize and share digital information such as Web links, calendars, photos, videos, presentations, attachments and other documents in an easy-to-maintain site.
"Creating a team web site has always been too complicated, requiring dedicated hardware and software as well as programming skills," said Dave Girouard, general manager of Google's Enterprise unit, which is aimed at office workers.
Google Sites is a stripped-down version of Microsoft's SharePoint collaboration software, which lets users inside an organization share documents and maintain calendars on secure Web sites, but is far more complex to set up and maintain.
Unlike SharePoint, which typically requires organizations to buy and maintain their own hardware and software at costs that can run from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to serve one hundred users, Google Sites is hosted on Google computers and is free to users of Google Apps, which the company offers at a fraction of the cost of Microsoft tools.
"We think this is SharePoint-like, but better," Girouard said in an interview.
Basic sites are free or carry a small monthly per-user fee, depending on whether organizations have purchased fuller-featured versions of Google Apps that allow for centralized technical management.
Google Sites puts control of Web sites into the hands of regular office workers rather than an organization's network administrators or technical support desk, Girouard said.
"The idea is that IT (Information Technology departments) don't have to do anything except enable users to serve themselves," the Google executive said.
Google Sites enables any user invited to join a site to edit pages without requiring knowledge of Web coding or design. Any information published to the site is searchable by visitors with permission to use the site, the company said.
The site publishing framework lets office workers create "intranets" -- centralized archives of company information that can only be viewed within an organization rather than on the public Web. Such sites can be used to manage team projects.
Individual teams members can also create profile pages of their activities, interests and schedules. In school settings, Google Sites can function as virtual classrooms for posting homework assignments, class notes or other student resources.
Girouard said he considered Google Sites the biggest new product introduction in a steady stream of innovations since his company introduced Google Apps only a year ago this month.
Google Apps offers a suite of word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation software that let groups of users edit and view documents over the Web, together with e-mail and basic personal Web site publishing tools.
Over the past year, Google said more than 500,000 businesses and several thousand schools and universities have adopted Google Apps.
"Google Sites is relatively easy to use and free," said Rebecca Wettemann, an analyst with technical consulting firm Nucleus Research of Wellesley, Massachusetts. "Google is making people think differently about how businesses use the Web."
But Wettemannn said Google's Web site publishing framework so far lacks management features that let organizations control the unbridled proliferation of poorly maintained or out-of-date Web sites that can occur when such tools are let loose.
"Just because it is easy to use and intuitive doesn't mean users don't have to sit down and think about the business problems they are trying to solve," she said.
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