There was a time when Microsoft was without a doubt the premiere software manufacturer. Nothing and no one came close to the level of success and penetration that Bill Gates & company had achieved. Almost universally, Microsoft products migrated their way to all facets of home, and more importantly, business life.

Yet since XP's heyday, that domination has slowly begun to recede. Seemingly insignificant changes in the market have revealed that Microsoft isn't the almighty and all powerful influence it's been in the past. Microsoft's grip on many software aspects is not as tight as it once was, as other companies have begun to make inroads.

One of the more significant recessions is the growing popularity of Mozilla Firefox. Once an obscure web browser, this open source application has made a serious dent in Explorer's market share. Firefox now has a nearly 14% market share for the first quarter of January of 2007, an increase of nearly 5% from the first quarter of January 2006 (Explorer has fallen below 80% for the first time).

Another old time nemesis thought to have been vanquished is Apple Computers, led by its venerable captain Steve Jobs. While it's true the Mac has made progress into the computer market place, the real success is with the iPod, and to a lesser extent, the iTunes music store. The resounding popularity of the iPod, which shows virtually no signs of slowing down, has become nearly synonymous with the term "MP3 player".

Microsoft attempted to develop an iPod killer, dubbed the Zune. However, despite strong initial sales, the Zune has been anything but an iPod killer. Scathing DRM criticisms and crippling WIFI restrictions have likely contributed to the Zune's demise.

"Microsoft's Zune will not play protected Windows Media Audio and Video purchased or 'rented' from Napster 2.0, Rhapsody, Yahoo! Unlimited, Movielink, Cinemanow, iTunes, or any other online media service," the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation stated. "That's right—the media that Microsoft promised would Play For Sure doesn't even play on Microsoft's own device."

The Zune began to fall from grace, as its sales ranked number 47 on in December of 2006. The Zune is currently ranked number 51, just behind the iPod shuffle, SanDisk 2 GB MP3 player, and a Sony cassette recorder (with auto shutoff!)

Yet there is at least one stronghold left in the Microsoft Empire, the Office Suite. This software suite has been the mainstay of business applications for almost 15 years, with little in the way of any real competition. Open Office is a decent alternative, especially price wise, however there's little doubt that Microsoft Office is superior in almost every other aspect. Yet this once standard concept is about to be challenged.

The challenger? Google. The skyrocketing search engine turned entertainment provider turned software development firm has been turning up the heat recently, and it's decided to turn it directly at Microsoft's reign over office products. In an statement made today, Google announced it will start selling its "Google Apps Premier Edition", a ratcheted-up version of its already-existing free version.

Google Apps provides an array of Internet based software that most businesses find useful - word processing, spread sheets, email, web publishing, and so on.

Google's new service will cost $50.00 per user a year, which includes "...10 gigabytes of storage per users, APIs for business integration, 99.9 % uptime, 24x7 support for critical issues, and Gmail for mobile devices on BlackBerry."

The free service will still exist, albeit on a lesser scale. One of the more significant differences from Microsoft Office is that all data is stored on Google's servers, thereby cutting down on storage costs for small businesses. That may sound like a good idea, as the small business doesn't have to worry about storage costs, virii corrupting data, and other attacks - at least on their end. How well are companies receiving that?

"So much of business now relies on people being able to communicate and collaborate effectively," said Gregory Simpson, CTO for General Electric Company. "GE is interested in evaluating Google Apps for the easy access it provides to a suite of web applications, and the way these applications can help people work together. Given its consumer experience, Google has a natural advantage in understanding how people interact together over the web."

It seems the reception has been met with warmth by some larger corporations. That could spell trouble for Microsoft, who currently has an iron grip on this market. For $50 per user a year, there's a lot of advantages Google offers, yet it doesn't quite have all the very significant bells and whistles the office suite currently possesses. But it may allow, for now at least, smaller businesses the option to think twice before dropping a considerable investment on Office 2007. If anything, Google has opened the doors to a competitive market, and that's great news for everyone.