Monday, April 02, 2007

Review of Google Apps

Following from my post about Software As A Service, I promised to review the Google Apps Beta service once I had used it for a while and put it through its paces. You need to try something for a couple of months before you find the problems! An example of this I recently hit was some great hardware I got cheap. Turned out it wouldn't work in Vista as it promised because it had a dodgy firmware version. Thankfully I got a refund no probs.

To recap, Google Apps is a customisable, brandable, free service from Google that provides email, calendar, chat, website, word processing and spreadsheet functions. It is planned to compete with Microsoft Outlook, Word and Exel.

So the question, should you give up your normal office applications yet and migrate to these software as a service alternatives? In a word NO!!!

See my other article for discussions of the principles. My conclusion then was cover a couple of potential problems yourself and it is a great idea.

The main advantage with services like Google Apps is they run within any web browser on any machine. This is also the biggest disadvantage. Web browsers, as the name states are small limited programs that visually display web sites, and let you navigate them. However this restricts the possible functionality of all websites. They are designed to prevent anything you look at from accessing your computer. This is why a website will never compete with a normal program running on your PC.

A lot of the functions in Office 2003 are available in Google Apps. Due to limitations of what is possible in a web browser, the features are much harder to find and use. The ways you can edit a document are not as sophisticated as is possible in Word. The next version of Office will move the barrier higher as Google get nearer and nearer to where it was. As an example a web page cannot be controlled by voice commands in the way it will be possible to control a word processor running on your PC.

I do uneqivically recommend the email features of Google Apps. It is head and shoulders above using the normal POP service provided by your internet company. The reasons why are described next - be warned its a long list :)

  1. Google email will work with your domain name. Find a better service and you can leave without changing your email address!
  2. You can create an unlimited number of email mailboxes, email aliases (think nicknames that forward to one of your other email mailboxes) and email lists (an alias that forwards to any number of other email accounts on the web).
  3. It's quick. Email is delivered immediately its sent. My old email service could take 10 minutes to send a test message to myself.
  4. 2Gb of storage per mailbox. You will have to try very hard to exceed that. I have just checked my PC and all my email from the last 5 years is only 1.5Gb!
  5. All email mailboxes are filtered for spam by Google at their end. In other words you don't have to download everything to your computer and delete the ones your computer decides are spam. The spam filtering is free. And it is extremely good. I now get 2/3 spam messages a month compared to 10 a day with my old spam system (cloudmark) which was hot compared to most. Nothing important has ever been marked as spam in error. You can use the google web interface to review spam messages and release any you actually want.
  6. Nothing is appended by google to sent or received messages.
  7. One way you can access all your email mailboxes is from any web browser. This can be customised free to show your company name and logo if required. There are unobtrusive ads on this web page (same as in google search) unless you upgrade.
  8. The other way is over an encrypted connection from your usual email client such as Microsoft Outlook. Normally, anything running on your network can eavesdrop when your mail program routinely looks for email. Every time you check for email your email account password is sent completely unprotected. I have never come across a service that allows secure email collection before. Outlook has a checkbox to turn it on if supported at the other end. This stops your password and your emails being eves-dropped.
  9. It is usually not possible to use any outgoing (SMTP) service other than the one provided by your internet company for security reasons. Again google provide enhanced encryption and security for outgoing messages that works over any internet connection.
  10. If you wish, all email (incoming and outgoing) will be kept on the google servers after you have retrieved it. It can be put in an archived state which effectively makes it disappear until you search for it. We all know Google for search and this is a great feature.
  11. When accessing email in a web browser all related incoming and outgoing messages are grouped as a conversation so they appear as one large message.
  12. There are loads of options for conditional filtering or forwarding of email.

In summary - it is good!

If you studied the above you will understand that at no point did you need to go to Google in a web browser. The email side (including the web browser email interface) of Google Apps is clearly ready for mainstream release. It is good enough for use in any size business. The rest is not. The web interface is unusable by all but the most advanced user. It is hard work. For example some calendar screens have two save buttons, one at the top and one at the bottom of the page. Press the wrong one and it doesn't save. The interface is very inconsistent between different parts of the applications. I could not recommend this aspect of Google Apps. Even sharing any access to a document between members of the same group was next to impossible.

Once it is out of beta testing and the interface is refined I will have another look. At the moment forget the features other than email. I have lots more niggles, and loads of features the system badly needs to be properly useful in a shared environment, but as its beta I'm sure Google will fix them and it would not be fair to detail all of them here.

To sign up go to It's all totally free! You can even try the premium service free. This gives you more storage, ability to turn off the ads in the web email interface, an uptime guarantee and access to technical support. All the problems I raised they just logged them to be fixed by the developers.


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