For those people who don’t know, Google Apps is Google’s answer to an office suite. Microsoft Office is probably the most recognised of these tools, but there are plenty of others for different platforms. The current drive is for online, web-hosted versions, which require no installed software and only a browser to run.

I recently ran a trial of Google Apps as a possible replacement for our incumbent solution of hosted Exchange and Sharepoint, along with normal copies of Microsoft Office. I didn’t expect it to replace the desktop applications, but mainly replace our email, calendar and intranet services and possibly provide some extra functionality for light users. Having completed my trial and made my decision I thought I would write up my experience here to make it more generally accessible.

Our situation

We weren’t unhappy with the existing solution, but the difference in cost was enough to convince me to take a trial and see what it was capable of. The applications needed to match existing functionality in the core areas and be seamless. It also needed to be very reliable.

I wasn’t entirely new to Apps, I use the free version for one of my personal domains.

We have a head office and a number of branches. The branches only have one Office user, who primarily only uses email and calendaring with Outlook, in part because they don’t have Office installed.

At head office the use is much greater, everyone using Outlook email and calendars, shared documents on Sharepoint and use of many of the Office applications, using some of their power features.

The apps

Google Apps provides a number of functions:

  • Hosted email (Gmail)
  • Hosted calendar (GCal)
  • Office document creation, editing and storage (Docs)
  • Contacts hosting
  • Web page creation, editing and hosting (Sites)
  • Instant messaging (Chat)
  • Video hosting

Some of the other key features for anyone using an Exchange solution:

  • Easy mail, calendar and contacts migration
  • Integration with Microsoft Outlook (email and calendar)
  • Support for mobile devices (BlackBerry, iPhone, etc)

Email

We were looking to replicate working with Microsoft Outlook and Exchange. This meant matching the functionality and allowing end users to control their mail in the same way they would as if Outlook was attached to an Exchange server.

Largely this worked, but if fell down in a couple of key areas.

What worked was the migration tool, it was easy to use and worked flawlessly. As we used hosted Exchange it would mean installing and running this for each of our users though (because we didn’t have server access), with only 26 users this still would have been a very time consuming process.

Ongoing synchronisation required another tool, which would mean installing and maintaining another application, not something I was keen on.

There were some simple things too, the Global Address List, for example, took 24-hours to sync once you added a new user. Outlook didn’t auto-complete from the GAL.

Another issue I found was that when I copied myself in on an email and then deleted the copy, it removed it from my sent items as well, making it very difficult to trace any emails I sent.

The other alternative was the web interface. Although I use Gmail, I don’t like Labels as a way to organise (I only really use it with Thunderbird) or the way Gmail threads messages together and I was certain my users weren’t used to either so it would cause problems.

I also had a situation where it reported webmail was unavailable during the trial (at least once in what ended as about a 20 day trial). It didn’t bode well for reliability.

On the plus side, the web interface would mean not having to install software which needed a licence or ongoing maintenance of the software. We already had a web version with our existing solution though and users still preferred using Outlook, so I doubted it would get used much.

I have found Gmail’s spam filters to be the best I have come across, not much gets through.

Calendar

I’ve used Google Calendar (GCal) for a number of years and found it very good. Using it in a business, however, presented some challenges, mainly around meeting invites.

There is no option for tentative responses, for example. Not a major issue, but missing all the same. Another thing that gets done fairly often is sharing calendars. It’s fairly simple with Exchange/Outlook, but with GCal/Outlook you first had to login to the web UI and then make a change to the sync tool. Such a departure would mean a lot of people not knowing how to do it and a lot of support time explaining or doing it for them.

Then there was attachments on meeting invites. These got loaded into Google Docs but without any permissions for the recipient to see it (aside from the security risk of loading the document, to then have to remember to manually change the permissions was a no-no). That was if the email was sent as an invite, sometimes the attachment caused the recipient to just receive the invite as an ordinary email. Not a great impression for recipients outside the company.

The last was a show stopper though. When I sent a meeting invite the appointment wasn’t added to my calendar. So I could invite someone and unless I manually remembered to add it, I could miss my own meeting. That was a serious problem. (It’s fair to note we were using Outlook 2010 which wasn’t officially supported, but no-one could tell us if this was the reason.)

Documents

Google Docs has had a lot of hype, offering an alternative to some of the most popular apps in Microsoft Office. It allows you to create and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents without installed applications. Sounds great, but I knew we would not be able to give up our installed copies in many cases because the functionality we use is beyond what you can do online (connecting to databases, opening large spreadsheets, documents with background images).

So this was mainly for sharing documents with our remote users to access and give those users who didn’t have Office a chance to be able to open and edit Office docs.

I found loading documents and setting permissions confusing and overly complicated, which made me fear for security of documents. Sharing them was no guarantee people could find them either, you needed to know they were there and go look for them, they didn’t just appear in your shared list even if they were in a previously shared folder you had opened before. Which basically makes it a waste of time (Google may be all about search, but most people browse for documents).

Editing documents wasn’t bad, but it only supports a limited amount of functionality and formats. The ability to save/export in different formats was nice though.

I happened to try Microsoft’s Office Web Apps for a comparison and, as you would expect, it wiped the floor with Docs in terms of compatibility. For basic documents Apps may work, but not for anything else (I opened one document with a background image and Docs put the image on one page and the text on another).

Sharing documents certainly wasn’t as easy as Sharepoint or using network folders and I found most functions confusing to setup and use.

Intranet (Sites)

We mainly use Sharepoint for shared document storage and a few things like wikis and task lists. It’s sub-divided by department with only the relevant people having access.

The first issues with Sites then were that you couldn’t control access on a per page basis, only per site, so you had to create a separate site to control access to departmental materials.

Then there was the Document Library tool which doesn’t allow bulk uploads of documents, not ideal for migrating all our documents over. No problem, I thought, I can bulk load with Google Docs (which can, bizarrely) and then just link to the folder, it’ll then show the whole list of documents. This also saves having them in two places. It would, except when you link a folder to the Document Library it only shows the folder name and a link, not what’s inside. So you would have to link the files individually.

The one bonus was you could easily view and (with the correct permissions) edit all within the browser, even selecting from a range of formats to download.

I decided we’d stick with Sharepoint even if we moved everything else (and I am no fan of Sharepoint).

Instant Messaging

We don’t use it now (most of my users don’t understand what it is I don’t think) and I didn’t think that would change.

Video

We didn’t make use of this in the trial.

Administration

I found the administration interface was big and had lots of features and options, but was laid out in a way that made many of them hard to find. There were times when I knew I had seen an option but couldn’t remember where, so I tried the obvious places but ended up having to google (ironic) or go through each page and check each option (not always obviously named).

Another issue was that, using Internet Explorer (which we have to for one of the web services we use) meant each time you opened an application (Gmail, Calendar, etc) or a document it opened in a new window. Soon you were overwhelmed by them.

Conclusion

Overall I wasn’t impressed. I felt that most of our users would get a worse, less integrated experience and that we could expose ourselves to looking bad in front of customers and external colleagues if our systems failed.

I wasn’t convinced by the system’s reliability either, which worried me as much as anything else.

The main advantage to Google Apps was price. Even with setup fees and our small user base (26 users) we would save £2,000 first year and £2,400 in subsequent years. That would cut our email/office costs by a third to a half. No small figures.

Against that I weighed the added training, support and lost productivity and in the end decided against it. Partly because it outweighed the costs and partly because there was too much that was too hard and places where too many corners had been cut for us to use it.

If I had a more technically-savvy user base I may have considered it, but for us the fit wasn’t right. I think this may have been a case of engineers designing a system rather than someone thinking of an end user.

There was also the evidence that Google take their own time to fix problems, not unlike any major company, but I found cases of bugs that had been open for nine months or more. That didn’t inspire confidence if something was affecting us.

The more I use non-Microsoft products the more you realise how good they are. I was never a big MS fan, but if they could get a bit more joined up on some of their small business offerings and slash their prices they would have a great product that was unbeatable.

For me, Apps isn’t business ready yet. Certainly not big business ready. If your users are tech-savvy and light Office users, you can probably get away with it. If they’re used to using Outlook and do more than use SUM in a spreadsheet, walk away would be my advice.