The good, the bad and Google Apps

When faced with technology decisions, there are those who stand at the edge of the pool and dip in a toe, and those who dive right in. Some wait too long to implement technology and some don’t wait long enough. Until recently, when it came to choosing an office productivity suite, people weren’t faced with such a decision. Traditional office suites were well established, and only a small percentage of companies bought anything but the most popular one (Microsoft Office).


Your organization might face a more challenging decision around such suites today, in part because of the emergence of software-as-a-service (SaaS) vendors. In the case of office suites, the SaaS model allows applications to be easily hosted off-site, either for free or for a small monthly or yearly fee.


Google Apps, introduced last February, is far and away the highest profile new SaaS offering in the space. It is free with a $10 domain name registration and includes 6GB of e-mail storage per user. The Premier edition includes more services and more advanced features.

You also sign a service level agreement with Google that guarantees you 99.9 per cent guaranteed uptime, 24/7 phone support, and APIs that will let you make your existing IT infrastructure work with Google Apps. The Premier Edition costs US$50 per user per year and offers each user 25GB of e-mail storage.

“We consider the Premier edition to be more the business-type product, for larger organizations, and the standard edition is more for small businesses or non-profits,” said Rishi Chandra, product manager for Google Apps. “The great thing is you can get up and running within minutes.” It’s difficult to determine Google Apps’ current market share, as many groups use more than one suite at a time. For its part, Google says it signs on about 2,000 new organizations a day.

Matthew Cain, research vice-president with the Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., says the hosted or SaaS model represented about one per cent of the market in 2007 and will account for 20 per cent of it in 2012. “I’m not talking about any specific vendors here, but I’m talking about that particular model. So we do expect fairly rapid growth.”

Why Canadian firms are using it

So is it time to jump into Google Apps?

There’s not much risk in trying it, suggests Grant Shellborn, CTO of VendTek Systems Inc. of Vancouver. VendTek uses the free, standard edition, with Gmail, Google Calendar, Talk, and Docs. Its mobile users also sync Calendar and contact information through their BlackBerrys. The company made the move about eight months ago. Shellborn, who travels between offices in Canada, Beijing and Abu Dhabi, found accessing “our little hosted e-mail server” from halfway around the world was often a challenge.

Speeds weren’t adequate. Sometimes he couldn’t gain access at all.

So he set up his own personal domain with Google and began experimenting. “When I saw the speed difference of accessing that from Beijing compared to our current system, that’s really what made me see where we should go.” While the problems of running an e-mail server was the main factor, the collaborative nature of Google Docs also influenced him, says Shellborn.

The word processor is now used for online meetings so that all participants, even those in different offices, can open meeting minutes and edit them at the same time. Such collaboration is also possible with the Google Docs spreadsheet. Martin Ross, VP of technology at Toronto’s Healthscreen Solutions Inc. says his firm, which has around 300 employees, is also a good fit for Google Apps — though it bought the Premier Edition — and he doesn’t rule it out as a viable solution for larger organizations.

“We’re a very fast-growing, entrepreneurial company in the healthcare sector,” he said. “We’ve grown from five guys in a really dingy office to about 110 employees in little over a year so we’ve always been faced with a lot of IT challenges in scaling up across the board.”

Healthscreen, which has experience with Microsoft Office and OpenOffice, switched to Google Apps primarily for its mail and calendaring. It was having problems with spam and with high e-mail volumes.

“About 60 per cent of our users are on Linux, just using a combination of Linux terminal services, but we have a lot of guys who are remote on the road, he says. “If we had to support 100 users with fat clients, Outlook, Exchange Server etc., it would be a huge nightmare. Plus, what Google has done, which is really smart, is have really good Blackberry integration for the calendaring so we don’t even need a BlackBerry Enterprise Server.”

Salespeople use regular IMAP e-mail to connect to the server, and then sync using an application Google provides directly with the BlackBerry. “It’s IMAP e-mail, which is good enough. The difference is a couple of minutes. We can use a straight-off-the-rack Rogers or Telus BlackBerry, just point it to the Google mail server and away we go.”

Why Google Apps may not be for you

In terms of limitations, Ross says not everyone at the company can get by with Google’s spreadsheet application. Microsoft Excel has far more depth and the ability to handle much larger data sets. As a result, Healthscreen’s finance people still use Excel extensively. It’s not the only problem a Google Apps user might face. Fen Yik, research analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group, warns total migration costs can sometimes be greater than anticipated. People focus on functionality and a low yearly licence cost, but overlook file compatibility issues. While sending files to internal users who all run Google Apps will likely be seamless, exchanging them with people outside the company, where they’ll be converted to Word or other formats, may not be.

The other issue is offline usage. Google Apps can only be used while connected to the Internet. Google Gears will provide offline capability, but it’s still in the Beta stage, Yik adds.

A peak at Google’s upcoming prods

But Google’s Chandra says one can use any IMAP client to pull Gmail messages to give users offline access to them. He says Google is looking at ways of incorporating Google Gears inside Gmail, Calendar and Docs so it can provide a full offline experience. He also points out that Google is continuously adding other new features as they become available, and, of course, these are all provided to existing users free of charge.

“In 2007 we had 40 significant enhancements to the products and this year we’ve had over 10 already. This gives us an opportunity to really listen to our customers, learn where the issues are and what we can do better, and deliver on them very quickly and easily.”

Healthscreen’s Ross says for his company the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks, adding that his confidence in Google’s ability to handle his corporate data safely is high. Google “has some of the largest data centres in the world and Gmail has been around for five years now,” he says. “Especially for small or medium businesses, and for us, the amount of money that we would need to invest to guarantee something as good, or greater than Google would be astronomical.”

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