Google Apps

I sat in on a webinar yesterday, courtesy of NTEN, which gave a whirlwind, back-end tour of Google Apps. What is Google Apps? Google Apps is an online collection of communication and collaboration tools, such as Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Talk, and Google Docs.

  • Gmail (email) - many folks out there use Gmail for their own free, personal email account, but Google also offers Gmail for businesses. One neat feature of Gmail is the ability to use labels (taxonomy) on your emails to help with sorting and search management. Also, emails are displayed as conversations, so it’s really easy to view, sort, and file entire email chains.
  • Postini - recently acquired by Google, Postini provides software that is integrated into Gmail that provides better spam filtering and email archiving, security and encryption. Unfortunately, this service is only offered with the paid Premiere Edition of Google apps (more on this later).
  • Google Calendar – there’s nothing really fancy about Google Calendar; it’s your basic calendar application. One nice thing is that it is tapped into your Gmail contact list. You can also sync up your mobile phones or BlackBerrys. Also, with some editions of Google Apps, you can set-up and allow reservations of shared resources, like conference rooms.
  • Google Talk (instant messaging) – an IM in your browser. It’s also integrated into Gmail and its contacts. For more information on IMs, see David’s previous blog post.
  • Google Docs (document creation and management) – this is the meat and bones of Google Apps, in my opinion. While Gmail, Postini, and Calendar might all combine forces to overthrow Outlook or Thunderbird, Google Docs is Google's attempt to replace MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. All of the Docs are powered by AJAX, which basically means they're all browser-based and stored in HTML (essentially). I'm not going to go into all of the features of Google Docs, but some of the highlights include being able to have multiple people simultaneously working and saving on a document, versioning which keeps a history of every change made to a document, and the export to PDF feature. Google Docs also serves as a document repository for your Docs-created documents, but at this point you can't upload other file types (at least I don't think so).

What’s it cost? The free Standard Edition has access to most Google Apps functions, but there are limitations: 6.32 GB storage, no 99.9% uptime guarantee, text-based ads on certain screens, no 24/7 assistance, no Postini, no email migration tools, and so on.

Non-profit organizations are eligible to receive the free Education Edition, which gets you some of the benefits missing from the Standard Edition, but you still don’t get a 99.9% uptime guarantee or Postini.

The Premiere Edition, which gets you the whole enchilada plus 25 GB of space instead of 6.32, costs $50/user account/year.

For more detailed breakdown of the different editions, click here.

Is it a good idea for my organization to start using Google Apps? Well, that depends. If you are a small office that's connected to the internet and want to take advantage of the collaborative tools that Google Apps provides, then maybe it's worth looking into. Google Docs, for example, is a very strong, collaborative resource that doesn't require an organization to pay for, own, or manage server(s) to share documents. The free Google Apps Education Edition gets you some nice features, and cost of the Premiere Edition isn't astronomical. However, there are some things to consider.

  • There currently is no offline support for Google Apps. If your internet connection goes on the fritz, so does your ability to access and work on your documents. Google is working to change this with Google Gears, but it's in development and might not be ready for a while.
  • Without paying for the Premiere Edition, you don't get a 99.9% uptime guarantee. Doesn't sound like to big of a deal...until you can't access your files. This is just something to consider, though, rather than lose sleep over; Google's network is very, very big and most likely trustworthy in terms of uptime, redundancy and security.
  • In its current state, Google Apps seems more like a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, other processes and software. The convenience of the collaborative tools might be overshadowed by the additional time and energy spent configuring, learning, and using these new tools.

Though it may happen in the future, I don't think Google Docs or any other online document creation and management software is robust enough, at this point, to replace MS Office. Personally, I’ve been using Word since I had to write my first school report (on the state of Arizona) and I can't quite come to grips with the idea of never using it again. Yet.

Google Apps and other "Desktop in the Sky" applications (see a previous post by Brad on ajaxWindows for an example) are worth keeping an eye on. Case in point: if you visit Google Apps site, you'll see that almost all of the product's logos have the term "Beta" included in them. As the presenter explained yesterday, Google is constantly improving and modifying Google Apps. In a few years time, Google Apps could become powerful and all-in-one enough to woo me away from MS Office. We'll see.

If you have any other questions about Google Apps, feel free to either check out their site or post a comment and I’ll do my best to answer.

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