A long list of tools that redefines productivity.
Google has slowly cobbled together an impressive suite with Google Apps since its launch in 2006. Regular upgrades to the service have seen it develop from a curiosity to a definite challenger to Microsoft on the strength of the unorthodox combination of its components.
In a like for like comparison with Microsoft Office, Google Apps has about six main applications and one wildcard, the Google Apps Marketplace.
- Gmail for Business and Google Calendar – email and calendar
- Google Docs – a suite containing document, spreadsheet, presentation apps plus file storage and management
- Google Cloud Connect – connects Microsoft Office desktop software to Google Apps
- Google Groups – newsgroups and email lists
- Google Sites – intrasites and extrasites
- Google Video – online video publishing
- Apps Marketplace – third-party applications
Each component is explained in greater detail below.
Many will be familiar with Gmail for Business as it looks identical to the consumer version. Gmail has matured since its beta release, with labelling, filtering and message prioritisation.
One of Gmail’s best qualities was the strength of its spam catcher. Others may have caught up but Gmail sets the standard when it comes to protecting the inbox. Google has added a Labs section to Gmail which gives users some experimental tools such as file preview, mouse-gesture controls and auto reply-all.
Gmail is not for everyone. Users moving from Microsoft Outlook may find its text-heavy approach a little 70s in this age of colour touchscreens. And some struggle with the concept of labels which replaces folders. The advantage of labels is that adding several labels to one email is easier than adding one email to several folders.
Calendar is functional rather than attractive, but it does most things you would want including sharing project calendars and publishing calendars to websites. Calendar and Gmail are slightly under featured and a little more utilitarian compared to their polished Microsoft counterparts.
2. Google Docs
Google Docs is Google Apps’ word processor which competes with Microsoft Word. Confusingly, Google Docs is also the name of Google Apps’ document management platform. Aside from Google Docs there is Google Spreadsheet (up against the mighty Microsoft Excel) and Google Presentation (versus Microsoft PowerPoint).
The first point to note is that these cloud applications are nowhere near as fully featured as the 20+ year-old Microsoft Office apps, which shouldn’t be so surprising. Google Docs can’t pump out pretty newsletters with all the bells and whistles, and Google Presentation is not even in the same world as the formidable PowerPoint.
That said, Google claims that its three main productivity apps contain 80 percent of the features contained by their Office counterparts, which is more than most businesses will ever use. It’s a fair point and will hold true for many small businesses.
Google’s comeback is that the file collaboration is the best on the web. Multiple users can edit the same document at exactly the same time, and hold a discussion using a chat interface built into the document viewing screen. They can also leave comments and publish to the public internet through a very simple, easy-to-use interface.
Google Cloud Connect is a PC application that lets a user share, backup and simultaneously edit Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents. The beauty of this application is that it provides the benefits of online – co-editing, off-site storage, unlimited revision history, controlled sharing – while retaining the powerful features of the desktop Microsoft Office suite and the ability to work offline.
It also sidesteps the need for staff to learn the Google Apps interface, a common hurdle to adoption. Google Cloud Connect works with Microsoft Office 2003, 2007 and 2010 on the PC. There is no equivalent application for the Mac.
Users in Microsoft Word, for example, click on a button immediately above the document viewing window to share the document with a co-worker who can then download the document from Google Apps, open it in Microsoft Word and start editing simultaneously.
It’s a clever trick that gives small businesses the opportunity to try out cloud computing without having to commit or pay any money – Google Cloud Connect is free, as is Google Apps, for up to 10 users.
Google Groups is a method of sharing and controlling access to company information, and creating private discussion groups. A user creates a group and gives it permission to access documents, calendars, internal sites, shared folder and videos. The user can then add members to the group so that they can access that group’s content.
Managing who is in the group is straightforward; just add or delete a member’s email address. Google Groups also provides a forum interface for members to discuss issues within a group. Conversations are archived and searchable.
This type of feature is handled within Office 365 by SharePoint Online.
5. Google Sites
Google Sites is a simple tool for building basic websites for internal use such as team projects. A Google Site can centralise links to documents, spreadsheets, presentations, videos, slideshows and so on.
Google Sites is not capable of building great looking websites. Rather its focus is on ease of use – no coding is required – and sharing information stored within Google Apps or elsewhere online.
Google Sites comes with templates for project workspaces, team sites, intranets and so on, which should reduce the amount of time it takes to build a site. The library of templates is small and comparatively primitive compared to the collection available in Office 365’s SharePoint Online.
6. Google Video
While this is a niche application as most businesses won’t have the need to host video, Google Video is one of those services which demonstrates the breadth of Google’s interests.
If your business creates training videos for staff, wants to show off TV advertisements to potential customers or stream videos of company events, there are few alternatives which are as affordable, scalable and easy to use.
Hosting video is a major headache for businesses to do it themselves. If many people are watching the same video it will need a large and therefore expensive internet connection to avoid stuttering during playback.
Google Video provides a video channel for a business that has more control than consumer alternatives. Access to videos can be restricted to employees or suppliers, for example.
One fundamental difference between Google and Microsoft is the former’s open-platform approach. Google makes it easier for third-party software vendors to make applications which interact with Google Apps.
The Google Apps Marketplace contains a long list of CRM, accounting, project management and other applications which integrate with Google Apps. Many of these can be trialled for free, which means a business can easily test a new CRM with live data without having to buy a server, pay installation costs and run sample situations with historic data.
One word of caution: levels of integration vary. An application’s presence in the Google Apps Marketplace guarantees that a Google Apps user can log into the application automatically (a service called single sign-on). Some will do much more than that, by transferring information from your Gmail contacts or moving information in and out of Google Docs – once the user has given explicit permission.
However, not all applications are fully integrated, which can lead to some disappointment.
Where the boundary blurs
Google’s revenue doesn’t depend on selling cloud software, it comes from selling advertising. Consequently the internet giant is happy to give away a huge range of applications free, many of which are accessible by Google Apps users.
While these applications are not considered part of the core Google Apps suite, the most useful deserve to be mentioned.
They fall roughly into seven categories:
e-Commerce – Checkout
Translation – Translator Toolkit
3D modelling – SketchUp
For more advice on choosing between Office 365 and Google Apps, see our buyer’s advice page for productivity suites.