Google's new strategy to dethrone Microsoft Outlook

Amit Singh, the man perfecting Google's pitch to the workplace, reckons coexisting with the competition might prove to be far more effective than taking them head-on.

Amit Singh, President, Google for Work, at the company's Mountain View offices. Source: Clare Major for The Wall Street

Google believes it can disrupt the stodgy world of corporate technology and win a chunk of the roughly $US300 billion companies spend each year on workplace software. But pioneering driverless cars and delivery drones may be easier than changing the way people send email at work.

It is the job of Amit Singh to persuade companies to ditch Microsoft Outlook, Office and personal computers for business-focused versions of Gmail, Google Apps and stripped-down laptops known as Chromebooks.

While Bay Area start-ups and smaller companies have adopted Google's services in the last decade, the company has had only limited success convincing big businesses to replace tools like Microsoft Word.

Mr. Singh, age 46, has refined Google's workplace pitch, focusing on services like Google Drive for Work, which can coexist alongside competitor programs, reasoning that it's less painful for companies to add services rather than change them entirely. And, to help customers see Google's various offerings as a coherent suite of products, Mr. Singh on Tuesday redubbed his software fleet as "Google for Work."

Mr. Singh also is emphasising "cloud" services, which let businesses rent Google's computing horsepower instead of buying their own tech gear, just as households tap energy froWSJ:m shared electrical grids. There, Google is tangling with Inc., AMZN 0.99%  just one of Google's rivals for corporate-technology dollars.

In an interview, Mr. Singh, a former Oracle Corp executive, discussed Google's business-software ambitions, his strategy for displacing giants like Microsoft at work, and how the company will stand out in crowded market for cloud services. Edited excerpts:

WSJ: Most of the technologies used at work haven't changed much in years. Are things about to change?

Mr. Singh: The way people are using technology at work is changing. People are spending the vast bulk of their time on [mobile] devices versus desktops. [Workers] are involved in technology choices. They use things at home and they want to use the same things at work, because they find some of the same things at work haven't kept up.

WSJ: Does the emphasis on Drive for Work starting this summer mean you weren't as successful as you wanted to be selling businesses on Apps, a Microsoft Office competitor, or Gmail?

Mr. Singh: These are in many ways different markets. Our Gmail business, our Apps business are still growing by leaps and bounds.

File share, sync and collaboration, document management is actually a new category, so it allows us to take our products that we've built over time and enter a completely new set of customers. Our value proposition with Drive is please keep using whatever you're using— Microsoft, or Lotus products from IBM and we can add value with Drive alongside that. If you're not ready for a big email change, we have this new alternative.

WSJ: What is it like trying to encourage change at companies that usually don't move as quickly as Google?

Mr. Singh: With mobility changing work and new business models being created—whether that's Uber in transportation or Netflix in media—there's a growing realization at the CEO and board level that companies need to change how they think about technology, and they are coming to Google for that. [They say,] 'How do we transform our companies to take advantage of technology?' In many ways they are being disrupted themselves.

WSJ: How do you make companies and workers comfortable with switching their email or word-processing software?

Mr. Singh: Even now only 10 per cent or 11 per cent of email has moved [from computers] to the cloud. We had actually built onboarding tools so workers can still use the Outlook front end but Gmail as a back end. That objection has dramatically changed because of mobile, because it's a natural break from the legacy of what they use. If I'm going to move to a mobile platform anyway, then I'm changing the users' workflow.

WSJ: What did you think of Apple and IBM's recent partnership to help businesses develop web applications?

Mr. Singh: It's too early to tell. Since Apple doesn't necessarily have the cloud and services capability, that combination [with IBM] makes sense for them. In our case we provide the combo of Android and cloud together. Over time, developers will recognize the value of those platforms to build a new generation of applications for people at work. [Apple declined to comment.]

WSJ: Amazon pioneered a cloud service that lets companies pay by the hour for shared computing backbone. What can Google do differently?

Mr. Singh: The first version of cloud has been, you're used to doing things a certain way, let me give you a virtual storage device in the cloud. It saves a substantial amount [of money] and gives you agility. We will add a different value. We'll handle the uptime (keeping the service running), the scale, the advice on how to fix [tech hiccups]. That's actually a very different space than the current cloud space.

WSJ: Is Amazon vulnerable?

Mr. Singh: We are incredibly serious about being the [cloud] platform of choice for developers. We made the decision over the past few years that we will take the [technology backbone] that we have built for ourselves and open them up to developers everywhere. Give them the kind of magic that Gmail or YouTube engineers enjoy every day.

WSJ: What do you think of Microsoft chief Satya Nadella's emphasis on web-friendly software and mobile services?

Mr. Singh: He seems to have gotten off to a good start. You have to do more than lip service, though. They don't think data centers and networks. On the mobile front, they are trying but that's not their core. Neither cloud nor mobile is their core capability. Their products like Office Web Apps, if you use them you will see the level of maturity there. But hopefully they will get better. Competition is always a good thing and we never underestimate them. [Microsoft declined to comment.]

WSJ: In a recent tweet, you suggested that software companies like Microsoft and IBM are counting unrelated things, such as equipment, in the revenue for their cloud businesses. Are tech companies overstating their revenue numbers from cloud software?

Mr. Singh: At the moment, the revenue is really more contractual, like you add something to a particular contract and count it as cloud revenue. You keep using Office and we'll give you this cloud contract, and then we'll count a prorated part of the revenue as cloud revenue. But that's not what people are using their products for. Active users of their product should be the measure of how successful it is.

Write to Shira Ovide at and Alistair Barr at

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