Google has made no secret of wanting to oust Microsoft as the premier enterprise software provider on the planet, but can Google Apps really displace Microsoft Office, SharePoint and Exchange -- for free? We put Google Apps Standard Edition to the test in this review.
What's in Google Apps?
Google Apps is a subset of the various free Google web applications that you can assign to a personal web domain. Thus, rather than having an e-mail address at firstname.lastname@example.org, I can create email@example.com. Google Apps also adds under-the-hood controls you don't get from the usual Google web applications, emulating some of the broader account creation and permission controls of Microsoft Exchange Server and Microsoft SharePoint.
There are ostensibly several different "tracks" for Google Apps, targeting either business, educational institutions, governments or non-profits. For the most part, there are no functional distinctions between these product groups; everybody gets the same set of Google Apps at the same price, but the marketing copy is different. The only difference that matters is that between the free Google Apps Standard Edition and the paid Google Apps Premier Edition.
Google Apps Standard Edition includes private versions of Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, and Google Sites. Standard Edition is limited to 50 users per domain and roughly 8 GB of storage per user (7GB of mail storage, 1 GB of document storage). Premier Edition throws in Google Video, Google Groups, unlimited users, 25 GB per-user storage, and additional user controls and tech support; it will cost you $50 per user per year.
The quartet of applications in Google Apps Standard Edition are designed to replace the major functions of Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint, Microsoft Exchange Server, and Microsoft SharePoint Server. These apps are accessed through the web browser, rather than as desktop applications. This means you'll need an internet connection to fully access your apps, but in return Google Apps can run on virtually any operating system. Each app is assigned to a subdomain of your Google Apps domain, with your private Gmail available at mail.yourdomain.com, Google Calendar at calendar.yourdomain.com, Google Docs at docs.yourdomain.com, and the Google Sites intranet platform available at sites.yourdomain.com. Google Apps user accounts can also access the Google Talk instant messaging client, and can sync with a number of mobile operating systems. Using Google Gears and/or the Google Chrome browser allows you to sync most of your content to a local PC, so even if your internet connection fails you can access most or all of your data.
Bear in mind, the entire design philosophy behind Google Apps is to offer only the major functionality that most users will commonly need. The Google Docs word processor doesn't offer a tenth of the features of Microsoft Word, but Google Docs does include all the text formatting, saving, printing, and sharing options that comprise 90 percent of typical Microsoft Word usage. The same "just what you need" minimum functionality applies to all components of Google Apps. There are no pivot tables, no complex mail-merge wizards, and no mass library of presentation sound effects to choose from. If you're a power user of any proprietary software, Google Apps will not meet all your needs -- at least not out of the box.
What You Can Add to Google Apps
The Google Apps Marketplace offers -- either as giveaways or as for-sale products -- a wide selection of third-party web applications that integrate with Google Apps. Need a CRM app that integrates with your Google Apps contact lists? No problem. An expense reporting tool that links to your online financial spreadsheets? You're covered. Project management apps that sync with Google calendar and private Gmail? Take your pick. It's simply a question of matching cost to functionality. Moreover, most of these apps can be deployed to specific user accounts, so you can give your employees just the apps they need and not waste money licensing helpdesk apps for sales leads, or marketing apps for engineers.
You can add data to Google Apps almost as easily as you add third-party applications. If you are presently running an Exchange Server, Google offers an Exchange migration tool to directly transport your existing e-mail archives to your Google Apps mail domain.
Costs and Savings
Strictly speaking, even Google Apps Standard Edition isn't totally free, because you have to purchase a web domain to assign to your Google Apps. This will cost you seven to ten dollars annually, with the latter price being what Google charges you to buy a domain through them. No matter how you slice it, that's still a small price to pay compared with the costs of licensing traditional desktop software, plus any hardware you might allocate to run e-mail or network storage servers.
Google purports to estimate how much money you can "save" with Google apps at GoneGoogle.com. In truth, this sales-gimmick is a better illustration of how much Google Apps is worth. Gone Google claims that I saved some $30,000 annually by using Google Apps for my personal domain, JayGarmon.net. I never would or could spend even a tenth of that running my personal domain, but then I'd never set up a seven-gigabyte web-accessible mail account on my own server, with full RAID recovery, or VPN access to my document folder and my personal intranet (which I also wouldn't have set up). Replacing all that functionality with proprietary hardware and software may have cost me $30,000, but that's an argument for how much Google Apps is worth, not how much it saves.
What You Don't Get
The single most compelling reason to pay the $50 per user per year for Google Apps Premiere Edition is also the single greatest risk associated with Google Apps Standard Edition: tech support. If you're a paying Google Apps user, you get an actual phone number you can call in the unlikely event that your account data is hacked or corrupted. With Google Apps standard edition you're offered a support forum and FAQ setup, which is to say you're on your own to figure out most problems. Google has a very solid track record of uptime and data integrity, but in the worst-case scenario of data loss, Google Apps Standard Edition customers simply can't directly contact Google for help.
Any business with fewer than 50 employees should consider Google Apps Standard Edition. Small to medium businesses are exactly the sort of organizations that probably don't have (and can't afford) the on-staff technical expertise to run a mail server and a helpdesk. Even with the basic functionality limitations of Google Apps Standard Edition, the price simply can't be beat. For $10 per year in domain costs, you can avoid paying for virtually any software license or server hardware. The functionality you lack is more than made up for in the money you don't spend.
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