Google gave Gmail another push toward the enterprise on Tuesday by announcing new APIs and "contextual gadgets" to enable powerful data viewing and collaboration from within Gmail messages.
Google's stated goal here is to "intelligently display relevant information from other systems as you read your email, so you can be more efficient without leaving your inbox," according to a post from Chandrashekar Raghavan, Product Manager for Google Apps extensions.
So, imagine employees being able to interact with CRM systems, ERP software, or Salesforce.com modules directly from within relevant email messages. This the kind of thing that Google wants to enable. In the enterprise, we often refer to this type of thing as Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), where disparate systems can work together and seamlessly access (and act on) the same data.
Rasghavan also shared additional details:
"Starting today, third party developers can build Gmail contextual gadgets and distribute them in the Google Apps Marketplace. These gadgets can display information from social networks, business services, web applications and other systems, and users can interact with that data right within Gmail. Contextual gadgets are yet another example how the power of the web can outpace traditional business technology."
Despite the fact that Google is just now publicly announcing this and opening up the APIs necessary for developers to tap into it, a number of companies have already been working with Google to build a few of these contextual gadgets as examples, including some popular services like Xobni and Gist.
For enterprise customers (those on Google Apps Premier), Google has built in administrative controls to manage this new functionality. Rasghavan explained:
Like any other applications in the Google Apps Marketplace, a Google Apps domain administrator can install a contextual gadget from the Marketplace with just a few clicks. Both before and during the install process, administrators can review the portions of an email the gadget will have access to, and can revoke that permission at any time from their control panel.
Watch a demo
Below is a video clip Google released to explain some of the functionality that contextual gadgets can enable. You can also watch a full scale version of the video directly on YouTube.
Google has done its homework here. Email, despite its limitations, is still the killer app and the most widely used piece of software in business. By extension, Microsoft Outlook is the most important piece of software in the enterprise, at least on the client side.
You could argue that, in business, Outlook is the most widely used project management software, the most widely used collaboration program, and the most widely used information management tool on the planet. Going head-to-head with Outlook is tough for Gmail because Outlook is so entrenched.
Thus, Google is using the speed and power of the Web to present and manipulate data within email in ways that are much faster and easier to set up than traditional object-oriented software like Outlook. If Google can get some third party players like Salesforce.com and SAP to build contextual gadgets and get a few enterprises to build and show off some contextual gadgets then this could turn into Gmail's first significant competitive advantage over Microsoft Outlook, other than cost.
However, if big vendors balk, then this will be limited to a few small toys and widgets for SMBs.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.