Over the past week or so, for reasons both professional and personal, I have been fooling around with Google Apps, checking it out as an IT administration tool for small businesses and organizations.
What follows is my non-technical, perhaps only half-informed assessment of how good this product is, and whom it is good for.
At the heart of Google Apps is a suite of software applications – e-mail, word processing, spread sheets, instant messaging, calendar sharing, basic webpage authoring – commonly used by private users, companies and organizations.
All these applications are web-based, so you can use them inside your web browser, just like you do with web mail, with no need for special programs on your computer hard drive.
On top of that, Google Apps provides a structure, which allows people to use those applications co-operatively – including, for instance, real-time collaboration in the production of text documents and spread sheets.
Though the applications themselves do not have the same sophistication of their counterparts in, say, Microsoft Office, they are functional enough for most basic purposes, and have the advantage of being either free (for private users or educational institutions) or very cheap (for larger users like commercial corporations).
In addition, Google Apps builds in a number of network administration features – things like e-mail account creation, setting limits on which users can see or contribute to which documents within the organization – that turn it into a kind of virtual private local area network.
A major attraction of this service, in fact, is that it allows organizations with limited budgets for information technology to essentially out-source their office computer network.
They don’t need to spend a lot of money buying a big serving computer, or employ the services of one or more computer nerds to keep the network operational and secure.
The service is offered free of charge, as I said, for personal users and to educational institutions.
The price personal users pay is that they have to look at advertisements that run on their web pages as they go about their business.
The price paid by educational institutions is nothing, period.
The price business users pay is US $50 per user (that is, per e-mail account) per year.
That is a pretty attractive price, if you think about it.
If you are a successful mid-size company with, say, 200 employees, you are probably currently paying for the computers in your server room and the IT workers to support the network.
Let’s say you are being very frugal, and have only $10,000 invested in your serving computers, and you only replace them every five years.
Let’s also assume you are a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to paying your IT department, and you have only one IT employee, to whom you pay $50,000 a year (which means you run through a lot of IT workers, because they will quickly move on to more realistically paying jobs).
That means your yearly expense on your local area network and its services comes to about $60,000, not including other minor equipment costs and software licensing fees.
If you buy a two hundred user licence from Google Apps, you can lose your serving computers entirely, and probably reduce your IT employee to at most half time (and maybe keep him longer, since he can make other money elsewhere).
With Google Apps fees of $10,000 a year, and system management consulting fees of $25,000 a year, you can now run your IT department for $35,000 a year – almost half of what you are paying to run your network in-house.
As an added bonus, you and your employees don’t have to be physically at the office to access your files and programs, because that network can be reached through the internet from pretty much anywhere.
You can run a virtual office without worrying about maintaining a corporate firewall against hackers and other intruders, because Google is taking care of that for you.
Furthermore, because Google allows you to “brand” all your e-mail and web sites with your corporate domain name (www.mybusiness.com), no one is going to know that you are using this on-the-cheap service.
All of this sounds pretty inviting, right? So where’s the catch?
There are at least two of them, though how deal-breaking either of them is depends on the nature and needs of your business.
First and foremost are the issues of privacy and control.
Though Google makes many friendly words on this heading, the fact remains that your data is going onto their computers, and their computers are consistently and massively connected to the internet at all times.
Google has a lot of money and resources to throw at fire walling and data security – lots more than your company is likely to have – but their sheer size makes them a more obvious and inviting target for spies or other interlopers.
If you are in a business that depends very heavily on intellectual property, or on the storage of private information, you are not likely to take the risk of handing off that information to anyone else, no matter how big, rich and competent.
The second big issue is connectivity-dependence.
Since all your data and software resources are sitting on Google’s computers, and you are accessing them through the internet, your whole shop shuts down if your internet fails or Google goes through some kind of operational crisis.
Given the tenuous nature of the Yukon’s internet connectivity (with all our information flow confined to a single fibre optic cable linking us to the world outside), that is a serious consideration for local business people.
On the other hand, the cost savings involved in going the Google Apps route may be significant enough for you to risk a day or two of trouble in the course of a year or so.
My own conclusion is that Google Apps is probably a good option to look at if you are a heavily IT-reliant start-up business, or a non-profit organization that depends heavily on communication, but does not store a lot of confidential information.
If you need to protect vital information, or if you cannot afford any downtime at all, though, Google Apps may be more of a gamble than you can take.
You can check out the offering for yourself by downloading the package at www.google.com/apps.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie
who lives in Whitehorse.