Last August, Google introduced a collection of Web applications designed for small to mid-size businesses that it called Google Apps for Your Domain. The free service, now renamed Google Apps Standard Edition, included Gmail accounts (since enhanced for mobile access on BlackBerrys), a shared calendar, Google Talk instant messaging, access to Google Docs & Spreadsheets, and a Web page creator. Google says more than 100,000 small businesses and hundreds of universities now use the service.
Now Google has introduced an industrial-strength version, Google Apps Premier Edition, designed for businesses of all sizes. GAPE costs $US50 a year per user, which includes a 99.9 per cent email uptime guarantee, additional email storage (10GB per account instead of the 2GB limit of the Standard Edition), and new administration and business integration features.
There are several ways to get started. If you already have a domain name that you can control (you must, for example, be able to add a sub-domain whose name Google specifies), you can sign up for the Premier edition directly. During setup you specify the domain name, and wait up to 48 hours for Google to verify the domain. If you already have a domain and a hosting service, you can sign up for the Premier edition, upload a one-line HTML file to your home page, and wait up to 48 hours for Google to verify the file's existence.
In either case, you must choose the number of users you want to support and pay $US50 per year for each using Google Checkout. A free trial is in effect until April 30, but you must supply a credit card, which will be charged later.
The last way to enrol (which we chose) is the speediest. As part of the signup process for the free Standard edition, you purchase a domain ($US10 annually) using a Google partner such as GoDaddy. Once the domain purchase is confirmed (in less than an hour), you choose the "Upgrade to Premier Edition" option from the Standard edition admin screen, and the Premier environment is up and ready for you in about two minutes.
Here is where you add, change, or remove user accounts; create the Start page layout for your user base (more on this below); run a chat session; design a website; set up email accounts; define mailing lists (you can include recipients outside your domain); launch the calendar; and run Google Docs and Spreadsheets. To highlight GAPE's focus on larger user groups, the administrator can update user accounts en masse by using a spreadsheet file.
As the administrator, the Start page is basically a portal you set up for your users. You define the basic look and elements that can be placed in up to three columns. You also check boxes to specify which additional elements users can add to their own Start pages (or you can forbid any changes).
In addition to the predefined content, you can add custom sections with static text (for announcements or a basic set of links, for example) or copy the headlines from an RSS feed (which we included in our Start page with just a couple of clicks).
All the administration tasks are handled by checking boxes (to place content) or dragging and dropping (to rearrange it). If you've used any of the custom home pages at MSN, Yahoo and others, you already get the idea.
The Web Page builder, with which you build your public-facing website, lets you select from several basic layouts, choose colours for text and backgrounds, and so on. Other Web tools we've used for easy website creation (including Microsoft Office Live), don't allow you to edit the HTML. Google Apps does, which is nice.
You don't need a hosting service to create and display these public facing pages. However, the "home page" URL is less than memorable for your customers - in our case, http://www.enterpriseofficetips.coma.googlepages.com. If a user enters just the domain name (that is, www.enterpriseofficetips.com), they're redirected to the Start page rather than the public-facing home page, which is hardly what you'd expect (or want).
The IT connection
For IT departments, Google provides APIs for data migration, user provisioning, and single sign-on. They also provide instructions for making changes to your Exchange server to integrate with Gmail. In addition, the Premier edition comes with 24/7 telephone support for the administrator; a service we did not have occasion to test. Advertising is turned off by default, though you can include targeted ads if you'd like.
You can also link to other products and services. For example, LTech's QuickStart for Google Apps enables you to install, configure, and migrate to Google Apps from your existing messaging platform (Microsoft Exchange or POP) for a fee that begins at $US999. CompanionLink for Google Calendar allows users to synchronise appointments and recurring events (including details) between Google Apps and Microsoft Outlook, PDAs and phones. Also of interest to IT is Google's assertion that because it hosts the service, install and updates are automatically applied. That's mostly true, but users still have to download Google Talk to use that IM feature.
Many media outlets have billed Google Apps Premier Edition as an attempt to encroach on Microsoft Office, but that's comparing apples and oranges. Google Docs & Spreadsheets is hardly strong enough to wean anyone away from Microsoft Word or Excel, and many of the other Office applications are missing entirely from Google Apps.
Google Apps Premier Edition's most notable competitor (in terms of interface and ease of use) is probably Microsoft's Office Live Premium (OLP), which offers 50 2GB email accounts and a decent website builder for $US39.95 a month. Office Live Premium offers several features Google lacks, such as website reports. OLP also lets you create and administer documents in a shared library easily; with GAPE you can share documents using Google Docs & Spreadsheets, but not with the elegance of a shared library. On the plus side, having a portal page for your business users (or external users such as partners or suppliers) in which you can share a calendar is a good idea. And GAPE's guaranteed 99.9 per cent email uptime is attractive, as are 24/7 phone support and APIs for integration with your own apps. But what Google is really trying to sell are partnership products (for syncing/converting Exchange inboxes to Gmail and so on).