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gmail-out-of-betaGoogle’s charming refusal to take the “beta” label off web applications like Gmail and Google Docs has become something of a joke. Recently, Google spokespeople started hinting that this might finally change, but the statements were always vague, like they were talking about some indefinite point in the distant future.

Well, the future is here. Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, and Google Talk — bundled with the already-out-of-beta Google Sites and Google Video under the name Google Apps — are all leaving beta.

So what’s the difference between Apps in beta and Apps out of beta? In terms of features, not much. Rajen Sheth, senior product manager with Google Apps, tells me the company set a variety of benchmarks for when Apps could be taken out of beta, involving “usage, utilization, and overall quality.” For one thing, he noted that over the past few months Apps has taken some serious steps towards addressing the requests of big corporate users, such as adding offline access for Gmail, improving BlackBerry support, synchronizing with Outlook, and improving contact management. In that vein, Google is also announcing a few more features today aimed at those enterprises — email delegation so assistants can screen and send emails on behalf of others, email retention so IT administrators can decide when emails get deleted from the system (an important regulatory requirement for some businesses and government agencies), and live replication of data at other locations.

But this may be more a question of perception than of features. Sheth notes that some potential customers were leery of the “beta” description, despite the fact that when Apps is sold to businesses, it isn’t considered a beta product, and it includes things like guaranteed uptime. But it can be a challenge to convince someone that a package of services (Apps) is not in beta when most of the component products (Gmail, Docs, etc.) are. And the reason it’s a challenge is because it doesn’t make any sense. So this move should help businesses see Apps as a mature set of services that they can count on.

Part of the confusion comes from the fact that Google Apps serve both consumer and business users. I asked Sheth whether consumer needs or business needs are guiding the product roadmap, and he said it’s actually both. It’s true that some features are meant mainly for one group or the other, but “the vast majority” are meant for all users.

“The consumer world is actually advancing much more quickly in terms of innovation,” Sheth said. “Things like, for example, group calendars and public calendars have been appealing across the board. There aren’t very many examples of features that originally started in the consumer world that aren’t appealing to enterprises.”

On the pricing side, nothing’s changing, Sheth added — the consumer applications will remain free and ad-supported, there will still be a free version of Apps, and Google will continue to offer a premium version for $50 per user per year. There may be opportunities to charge for specific add-ons later, but he said, “Our philosophy to date has really been to continually enhance the functionality as is around the existing price point.”

Using that approach, Apps is already serving 1.75 million businesses and bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue, according to Google. As for where Gmail and the rest go from here, Sheth offered a few general thoughts. Google wants to add more features that make Apps feel familiar to enterprise administrators and users, but it also wants to continue “innovating in completely new directions,” he said.

Meanwhile, the next time Gmail goes down, you can expect a chorus of bloggers and Twitter users to cry, “I thought it wasn’t in beta anymore!”

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