For the last three years or so, at almost every web hosting conference I've attended, someone has posed the question of when Google is going to "enter the web hosting industry." I always thought this was an odd question, since Google has always had millions of users on Blogger. What traditional web hosts were really asking was this: when is Google going to offer a free/cheap service that will compete directly with my shared hosting accounts?
That day may be closer at hand. Google revealed last week that it will use the technology from Wiki software specialist JotSpot (which it acquired in Oct. 2006) to transform Google Page Creator into a more versatile site building application. The new service, known as Google Sites, will be included in the Google Apps productivity suite. The plans for Google Sites, first reported at Your Search Advisor, "will allow business to set up intranets, project management tracking, customer extranets, and any number of custom sites based on multi-user collaboration."
That's a major change from Google Page Creator, a kludgy Ajax-driven app that doesn't allow users to create a site structure (thus "pages" rather than "sites"). Page Creator was far less useful than the free site builder tools offered by many hosting companies. But the description of Google Sites suggests that the finished app will be a more mature tool that may surpass the capabilities of current site builders and CMS offerings from web hosts. It also appears to be focused squarely on the business market.
Once Google Sites arrives sometime next year, Google Apps will offer a compelling feature set for small businesses. Large businesses would seem unlikely to move to Google without an SLA (Google Apps currently guarantees 99.9 percent uptime for email only). But the combined effect will be a package that is competitive with feature-packed shared hosting plans.
It's important to note that Google doesn't appear to harbor any focused ambition to conquer web hosting. The company's 70-20-10 product framework, outline in a graphic for its 2006 analyst day, doesn't even include a reference to hosting. But as it rolls out product after product, Google's platform is evolving as a viable alternative to centralized shared hosting accounts. The growing adoption of social networks, photo hubs and mashups has further blurred the boundaries of traditional hosting. Amidst this ongoing redefinition of web hosting, Google can make major inroads into hosting without ever really "entering" the business.