Can Google Apps unseat Microsoft Office and Exchange?

In an IT environment of MacBook laptops, Windows PCs, iPhones, iPads and Droid devices, why would any enterprise stick with Microsoft Outlook for email and collaboration?

That very question prompted a 60-day pilot test at New England Biolabs, an Ipswich, Mass.-based molecular biology company. Given the growth of Macs and mobile BYOD technology at the company, as well as the need to collaborate with mobile users and international subsidiaries, the IT team decided it was time to seriously investigate Google Apps for Business as an alternative to Microsoft Outlook and Exchange Server.

"Many of us, myself included, went into the process thinking this would be a no-brainer," says Ken Grady, CIO and director of IT at New England Biolabs. "We figured we'd end up moving to Google, saving a bundle of money, and everyone would be happier."

"Boy, was I surprised," Grady added. As a result of its proof-of-concept testing, New England Biolabs decided to stick with its existing Outlook/Exchange Server set-up and plans to transition to a hybrid solution that adds the cloud-based Microsoft Office 365 for remote and international users.

Why Consider Google Apps?

Like many organizations today, New England Biolabs has a growing army of mobile users, many of whom prefer to use their favorite devices, such as iPads.

"We've given our staff a great deal of device freedom, especially the scientific researchers," Grady says. Some 50% of the company's employees work on Mac or Linux computers, the rest on Windows.

New England Biolabs has been an Outlook/Exchange shop for many years, and currently manages a total of about 500 mailboxes. But given the shifting dynamics of its user base and the need to collaborate with non-employees, Google Apps for Business began to appear like it could be a more suitable collaboration platform.

Launched in February 2007, Google Apps for Business costs $50 per user account per year, with no maximum number of users. The suite of SaaS collaboration and document tools currently has a user base of about 4 million customers, according to Rahul Sood, director of enterprise applications at Google. About 5,000 organizations are adopting Google Apps for Business every day, he says.

"In the public and education sectors and SMBs and enterprise, Google Apps is gaining traction, with increased growth and adoption across the board," Sood says.

For example, of Business Insider's 20 Silicon Valley Startups to Watch, 97% use Google Apps for Business, Sood points out.

Among the top 100 universities in the United States, 61 are running Google Apps. A number of high-profile enterprises, including Genentech, Roche, Jaguar, National Geographic, Virgin America, Casio and Salesforce, use Google Apps for Business. (Google maintains a list of Apps for Business users online.)

Many companies choose Google Apps because their employees have used Gmail and other Google products for personal use, and they have become advocates for adopting the professional Google tools at the office, Sood says.

Also, companies like Google Apps because they don't get locked into long-term contracts. "We use a flex pay model," Sood says. "If you start using Google Apps and you want to terminate our service, you can do it within the month. There's no lock-in."

Customers also like Google Apps because the cloud-based suite of applications "is more in line with how they want to work in the future," he adds. For instance, the capability to easily collaborate on documents in the cloud from a variety of devices is a particular attraction.

"We've been successful in the enterprise because we've invested in building a platform that allows us to provide these services with the right controls, security and compliance requirements, and the reliability and performance enterprises need," Sood says. "At the same time, enterprise customers can adopt new or additional features at their own pace."

Some analysts agree that SaaS systems such as Google Apps for Business are gaining traction in the market. Outsourcing the hosting and management of a utility service such as email makes sense for many companies, according to Melissa Webster, a program vice president at research firm IDC.

"The need to support a geographically distributed workforce makes a cloud solution attractive, especially the need to collaborate with external stakeholders such as customers, suppliers, partners, investors, students and alumni and investors," Webster says. "Also, hosted solutions are usually accompanied by a subscription licensing model, which is very attractive when capital budgets are constrained."

But Google Apps for Business and other cloud collaboration tools aren't for everyone, Webster says. For example, enterprises usually already have an email/collaboration platform in place, which can make transitioning to a cloud-based system challenging from a change-management perspective.

And that's exactly what happened at New England Biolabs.

How New England Biolabs Tested Google Apps

In early December 2011, the IT team at New England Biolabs initiated a pilot test of Google Apps for Business. The overarching objective was to determine if Google's SaaS suite could provide a single, unified email and collaboration platform for the entire company, including its international subsidiaries. Along with email, the IT team wanted to add collaboration tools to the mix, such as chat or instant messaging, video and Web conferencing and presence.

Specifically, the team developed three sets of criteria against which Google Apps for Business would be evaluated.

1. Functionality. Does Google App for Business offer the tools and features users need? Do those features all tie together well? "Can you get it to do what you need it to do?" was the primary question, Grady explained.

2. Cost. Will Google Apps for Business save the company money overall?

3. Change management. How easy or difficult will it be for users to make the transition from Outlook/Exchange to Google Apps for Business?

The test involved about 24 New England Biolabs employees, all of whom had experience with Gmail as their personal email account. Fewer than half were from IT. The rest were spread across the company, from business development to marketing to research.

"For the test, we sought people we knew were 'IT friendly,'" Grady says. "We wanted people who had expressed an interest in moving to Google Apps. We knew that if we went with Google, it would be a big change. So we wanted to find people for the test who were likely to be 'change champions.'"

During the 60-day trial, participants used Google Apps for Business applications such as Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar and, to a lesser extent, Google Sites. During the proof-of-concept period, most testers exclusively used Google Apps in lieu of Outlook, but used both Office apps and Google Docs.

An Eye-Opening Set of Results

To his surprise, Grady says that "those of us that participated in the pilot quickly figured out that we really, really like Outlook -- even when we think we don't. We know how to make it work. Many of us have been using it for more years than we might care to admit and we know and love all its little quirks and idiosyncrasies. We miss them when they're not there. We set up exotic and elaborate folder structures to organize our emails. We are suddenly nostalgic for the odd little irrational ways that calendars behave on recurring meetings. Sure, it was crazy. But it was a crazy that we knew."

Here's what Grady and his team discovered regarding its three criteria:

Functionality. Overall, the functionality score was about even between Google Apps for Business and Office/Exchange.

Some things were much easier to accomplish with Google Apps for Business, such as on-the-fly document collaboration. Google Docs makes it extremely easy, with practically no set-up, for multiple parties to begin collaborating on the same document at the same time right away. Of all the Google Apps tested, Google Docs "received the most positive response overall" from testers because of its "self-service set-up" and the ease of use in collaborating, Grady says.

On the other hand, Google Apps for Business presented some roadblocks that are not an issue with Office/Exchange Server. New England Biolabs users found that Google Docs' document formatting options were more limited than those in Office, Grady says. In particular, testers really missed Microsoft Word's Track Changes feature when collaborating on text documents in Google Docs.

Though Google Docs doesn't have a directly equivalent feature to Track Changes, the text-editing app allows you to highlight portions of a document and add a comment noting the edit, a Google spokesman says. The comment appears in the document's right-hand column.

New England Biolabs users also wanted to work on documents offline, such as on a long plane flight without Internet access, a capability not offered in Google Docs.

Gmail presented another obstacle. Most users have years of archived email in Outlook, which are organized using Outlook's folder structure, Grady said. In lieu of folders, Gmail uses labels to organize messages (and incorporates Google search technology to help you find older emails).

"The idea of just using search as an organizational tool sounds good in theory, but the mental leap of getting used to the differences was higher than we expected," Grady says. "And that raised a question: How much value will each user get from teaching themselves how to use email all over again? I use my inbox to manage my workload. It's a habit I've formed over time, and I'm not sure the investment in time to break that habit is worth it."

In addition, administrative staff members involved in the test found Outlook 2010 for Windows and Office for Mac 2011 to be much improved in its ability to manage more than four calendars simultaneously and easier to use than Google Calendar, Grady says.

During the Google pilot test, one reason for considering Google Apps for Business -- to eliminate IT challenges related to supporting Macs as well as Windows computers -- became a moot point. New England Biolabs upgraded to the latest version of Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010, which caused its "Mac support issues to be much less critical," according to Grady.

Office for Mac 2011 allows users to upload, download, edit and collaborate on native Mac Office documents stored on a SharePoint site. Also, during the Google Apps proof-of-concept test, IT migrated its Mac users to Microsoft Outlook, part of Office for Mac 2011, and away from Entourage, the email client included in previous versions of Office for Mac. Outlook for the Mac includes much-improved support for Exchange Server.

Cost. By going with Google Apps, the company would have achieved some costs savings, Grady notes. "We would have been able to retire some hardware in our IT infrastructure, and from that standpoint, Google Apps came out ahead," he says. "But we'd never be able to fully eliminate Microsoft software like Word or PowerPoint, so we'd always have some level of Microsoft spend. And as a midsized company, we didn't have enough leverage to negotiate a substantial discount from either Google or Microsoft."

As a result, adding the $50 per user annual costs of Google Apps for Business to at least some level of Microsoft Office licensing would have only, overall, saved the company a small amount of money.

Change management. In this particular area, "the answer was a unanimous and loud 'it's just not worth it,'" Grady says. "Re-teaching ourselves a bunch of tricks to use email and document sharing would distract us from research, sequencing that next genome, making and selling enzymes, supporting our customers, and all of those other things we do every day to keep our business competitive."

When all was said and done, about 90% of testers said no to switching to Google Apps for Business. The 10% who voted yes were all in the IT department, Grady noted. "Even those who use Google tools outside of work found that Google Apps for Business didn't really work the way they wanted it to. These people would have been the ones we would have had to convince to make the change, and they ended up convincing themselves not to. They helped us make the decision to stay with Microsoft."

Tips for Companies Contemplating the Switch

What advice does Grady have for organizations weighing the pros and cons of Google Apps for Business vs. the Outlook/Exchange Server platform?

"Never underestimate change management," he says. "It's at least as important as the financial considerations. Email, calendar and document collaboration are fundamental to how people work. While you could save some money making the switch, you could also lose a lot of productivity, which would negate the cost savings."

When pilot testing something like Google Apps for Business, CIOs should involve not just IT but people from various departments across the business, Grady advised. "Look for real advocates of the technology who can give you objective feedback. If it doesn't work out, you don't have to go back and try to sell the advocates on the reasons why it didn't work," he said. "Also, it becomes a decision you make as a team, which makes it easier to get buy-in from the rest of the organization."

James A. Martin is technology journalist. He writes a CIO.com mobile apps blog that focuses on iOS and Android devices.

This story, "Can Google Apps unseat Microsoft Office and Exchange?" was originally published by CIO.

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