Google would like you to believe that its hosted e-mail and office productivity tools are just as good as Microsoft's. While that's probably not the case yet, Google Apps is a valid and inexpensive alternative to Microsoft Office for many types of customers. (See related story, "Google Apps vs. Microsoft Office: Who will win the office war?") Here's what you need to know about Google Apps.
Key components: Google Apps includes all the major applications businesses need to collaborate: e-mail, calendaring, a word processor and several other Web tools. Gmail for business users provides 25GB of storage, spam blocking, and a 99.9% uptime guarantee. Google Calendar includes the ability to compare multiple calendars to determine optimal meeting times; integration with e-mail and other calendar apps; shared project calendars; access on mobile devices; and ability to publish calendars on Web sites. Google Docs provides word processing, spreadsheets and presentation creating tools, all hosted online, with the ability for administrators to manage file sharing permissions. Google Postini provides hosted e-mail security and archiving for Gmail.
More Apps include Google Groups, for mailing lists, content sharing and searchable archives; Google Sites, a Web site creation tool for people who lack knowledge of coding and HTML; and Google Video, a private video sharing service for internal communications such as corporate announcements.
What it costs: The business price is $50 per user per year; individual users can access Gmail, Google Docs and other Apps for free. Postini services cost extra, ranging from $12 to $45 per user per year.
How many businesses are using it: More than 2 million companies are using Google Apps, including big organizations such as Salesforce.com, the semiconductor firm Avago Technologies and the City of Los Angeles, according to Google. (See related story, "Los Angeles chooses Google Apps over Microsoft".) But the adoption numbers aren't as impressive when looking at the entire business world. An IDC survey in July 2009 shows that nearly 97% of businesses were using Microsoft Office, and 77% were using only Microsoft Office. Nearly 20% reported extensive use of Google Docs, but not at the exclusion of other tools.
A separate survey by Information Technology Intelligence Corp. (ITIC) in January 2010 indicates that 4% of businesses are adopting Google Apps as their primary e-mail and productivity software, and that Google's popularity is primarily among the smallest businesses. But Google Apps adoption still lags behind OpenOffice and IBM's Lotus Notes, let alone Microsoft, according to ITIC. The ITIC survey was based on responses from nearly 800 IT managers worldwide and the IDC survey on 262 respondents.
What's good about it: The most commonly cited advantage of Google Apps is the low cost, both in terms of the list price and the ability to reduce internal IT costs for help desk support and hardware in the data center. Although some potential customers worry about Google's security, businesses that don't have their own disaster-recovery processes and systems may feel comforted by the fact that with Google their data is stored off-site and in highly redundant data centers.
While Google customers recognize that Apps doesn't offer everything that Microsoft Office does, proponents argue that the online productivity tools are good enough for most users.
Google "is a credible replacement for in-house versions of Lotus Notes e-mail or Microsoft Exchange if an enterprise wants to stop paying for in-house personnel and server and client access licenses," Burton Group analyst Guy Creese writes in a recent in-depth report on Google Apps.
Google's productivity and collaboration tools are also well suited to certain organizations, such as those that haven't yet implemented collaboration software at a broad scale, or companies that have pockets of "disenfranchised users" who lack e-mail, word processing and spreadsheet capabilities, Creese writes.
Strengths of the platform include the ability to easily include workers from outside the enterprise in collaboration processes; avoidance of unnecessary power user licenses; and storing documents online rather than in scattered C drives and file shares. It's also easy to scale up when more users need to be added.
What's bad about it: Google Apps lacks much of the rich functionality found in Microsoft Office. Online documents lack sophisticated features, Creese writes. For example, Docs lacks a grammar checker and the presentation creator will not embed charts or spreadsheets, he writes.
"Workers can synchronously collaborate on basic documents within the service, but they cannot synchronously collaborate on more complex documents, which for some departments (e.g., a marketing department creating sophisticated presentations) may be a deal killer," he writes.
Further problems include:
* Incomplete records management capabilities. "Although Google aims to store hundreds of gigabytes of information for enterprises at Google facilities, it does not offer an easy-to-use, automated method for enterprises to regularly delete such documents, issue a legal hold for specific documents, or bring copies of documents into the corporation," Creese writes.
* Google does not offer the enterprise-grade support that customers of IBM and Microsoft are accustomed to. 24/7 telephone support is only available for Google customers who pay extra fees to Capgemini.
* Gmail and Google Apps users have suffered downtime on 13 occasions since 2007, including seven times between February 2009 and January 2010, according to the Burton Group. Google's 99.9% uptime guarantee provides service credits, but does not reimburse companies for revenue lost during outages.
Security: Data safety may be the most common concern businesses have about shifting office applications to Google and other cloud vendors. But Google is making efforts to assure customers that their data is safe.
Google has received certification under the SAS 70 auditing standard, which is designed to show that service providers use sufficient processes to control access to data. Google is also in the process of complying with the Federal Information Security Management Act, which lays out minimum standards for IT security.
Google has various physical building and data security mechanisms in place, and automated failover capabilities to prevent downtime and loss of data when individual machines and data centers fail.
Google is preparing a government cloud to meet the specialized needs of public agencies, but meeting the data requirements of the financial industry, healthcare and other highly specialized fields is still a work in progress.
"We're working with those organizations and businesses to understand those requirements and provide the best possible solutions we can," says Google Apps product manager Anil Sabharwal.
Cloud computing is becoming more widely accepted by enterprises, and it may just be a matter of time before Google gains the trust of most CIOs.
"They're just newer in the enterprise so they need to build up that credibility," says Forrester analyst Sheri McLeish. "In terms of actual risk it's probably not any greater than any other vendor."
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This story, "Google Apps basics" was originally published by Network World.