With Microsoft Office clearly in its long-term plans, Google has launched a package of web-based productivity applications.

The offering, called Google Apps for Your Domain, comprises Google services that have all seen the light of day: Gmail, Google Talk, Google Calendar and Google Page Creator.

Notably absent from the menu are Writely and Google Spreadsheets, which respectively provide basic word-processing and spreadsheet functions that would be essential for a productivity suite, similar to the more feature-rich Microsoft Word and Excel. Also, Google has yet to unveil an application that could rival PowerPoint.

With Google Apps for Your Domain, organisations can tailor the included applications' UIs (user interfaces) with their own branding, and they can pick and choose which services to use. Moreover, there's a web-based management interface through which admins can manage their user account list, set up aliases and distribution lists, and enable the services they want for their domain. End-users will be to access their apps from any web-connected computer.

For the time being, there's one package available, the Standard Edition. Still in beta and free to use, it offers 2GB of email storage per user as well as customer service for admins via email or an online help centre. According to Google's announcement, organisations that sign up during the beta period will not ever have to pay for users accepted during that period (provided Google continues to offer the service).

The Standard Edition may meet the needs of home websites and other such small organisations, but not larger companies. However, Google says that a premium version of the package is under development for organisations with more advanced needs. "More information, including details on pricing, will be available soon," it adds.

Google acknowledges in its announcement that it will eventually reach out for the enterprise, as well as ISPs and universities.

The company's arguments for the benefit of using hosted applications in lieu of an installed software base aren't really new ones: going with a hosted app can save you money and reduce the amount of time your IT staff has to spend on maintenance.

"A hosted service such as Google Apps for Your Domain eliminates many of the expenses and hassles of maintaining a communications infrastructure, which is a welcome relief for many small-business owners and IT staffers. Organisations can let Google be the experts in delivering high-quality email, messaging and other web-based services while they focus on the needs of their users and their day-to-day business," said Dave Girouard, vice-president and general manager, enterprise, at Google.

Arguably, the same potential drawbacks to relying on hosted versions of business-critical applications apply: you're at the mercy of the company to stay in business, to remain committed to supporting the product and to maintain uptime.