Google Apps - another step towards MS Office

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There’s no simple answer to which one is better, Google Apps online or Microsoft Office on your PC.

by Peter Deegan, Editor-in-Chief, Office Watch

Google Applications has taken another step towards being the equivalent to online version of Microsoft Office, including now adding a paid version aimed at heavy users and companies.

As you might expect, there’s no simple answer to which one is better, Google Apps online or Microsoft Office on your PC. While Microsoft Office has vast power and features, Google Apps has enough for many people and some features that Office only provides with a lot more cost and bother.

In this issue we’ll look at the latest offering from Google and what we feel it needs in order to be a compelling rival for Microsoft Office.


What’s in Google Apps

Google Apps are a bundle of word-processor, spreadsheet, a basic web page maker, email and calendar into an online service. You access it via your web browser with documents and email stored on a ‘drive’ provided by Google.

You can use import and Save As options to move documents from your computer to Google App storage and vice-versa.

For $50 a year, the Premier Edition gives you additional features:

– 10GB email storage instead of 2GB

– Option to suppress the ads alongside email

– Shared calendars

– Single sign-on and API for corporate integration.

– Email migration tools

– Phone support

– Access to third-party applications and services.

– 99.9% uptime guarantee

The Premier edition is available as a free trial until 30 April 2007, though you have to give a credit card during the sign-up.


Google Apps for companies

Google is hoping that companies will use Google Apps to provide Office like features to their staff. At $50 per user, per year that’s a tempting offer.

Any company that takes advantage of this offer will need a fast and very reliable Internet connection, however the individual computer costs are modest compared with Office. Staff can login from branches, home or while travelling as easily as they can from their workplace, which encourages working from home and ‘hot desking’.

Sharing documents and even working on one document at the same time is a major boon of Google Apps.

You can allocate your own domain to Google Apps so all email comes from your email address, not @gmail.com

Security and storage reliability are issues for anyone, especially companies. We can imagine some organisations (especially decentralised ones) using Google Apps for some users or teams but entirely switching over is a brave call at this stage.

Schools and clubs could make good use of Google Apps, the simple access, low cost and portability makes it great for diverse collaboration needs.

Storage worries?

Obviously, Google wants you to use their service and ditch office applications. The troublesome issue is data storage and Google’s insistence that you rely on their online storage space.

Having your documents stored on Google’s servers is convenient; for you just open up a browser anywhere and get to your files. But that’s not the whole story.


Storage reliability

Google has had some troubles with users’ data disappearing – while they are rare you would not like it to happen to you. Of course, your own hard drives can also die but, as we’ll see, Google Apps lacks a backup strategy for users to implement


Legal access

While it’s unlikely, a court could order Google to give access to the files you have stored on their servers (even covert access). As we’ve noted before, a court might be reluctant to permit your computers to be seized but might show less reserve when it comes to access files stored on the net – even though the intrusion could be as great.


Security

Having your data stored locally gives you a greater sense of security. With data on internet servers you need to be much more careful about access security and staff training.


No local backup

Google or some partner needs to provide a way to mirror a local folder to the Google Apps storage. It’s all well to rely on Google’s ‘in-house’ backup systems but we feel most people would be happier if they could mirror their Google App storage onto their own computer. You can individually save documents to your local drive but not as a group or automatically.


A rival to MS Office?

Google Apps provides rivals to Word, Excel and some elements of Outlook – hardly a complete replacement for Microsoft Office. In addition Docs & Spreadsheets don’t have many of the powerful features available in recent versions of Office.

That said, the sharing and collaboration power of Google Apps is more accessible and elegant than anything Microsoft has provided. MS Office requires considerable server technologies to do what Google Apps lets anyone do for free. Google Apps isn’t a touch on Sharepoint but for many businesses Sharepoint is a considerable setup, support and cost imposition.

The $50 per user charge for 10GB storage is very modest compared with the costs involved in deploying MS Office. There are support and deployment costs for companies and you can expect to see reports coming out supporting each side as the cheaper overall cost (Total Cost of Ownership).

Certainly Google Apps can use far less powerful machines than Office 2007 requires to run effectively. As we’ve noted before in Office Watch, the base system requirements for Office 2007 are fanciful  . Google Apps needs a decent Internet connection and a computer with a recent browser (including Firefox). The ability to use older computers is a considerable cost saving.

Google offers paid customers a 99.9% uptime guarantee is pretty good. (that 0.1% is something like 8 hours a year). Many MS Office users would be delighted if they could be sure that Office had such little downtime.

As we said before, an automatic system of replication is the major missing piece from Google Apps.

Once that’s in place then we can see people using MS Office locally and Google Apps when appropriate (on the road or collaboration). After they’ve done that for a while, many might wonder why they are paying for MS Office, or at least why bother paying for another upgrade.

If Google truly wants to make a rival to Microsoft Office they have to open up their ‘online only’ storage policy. Add to that some integration of Open Office directly with Google Apps and you’ll have a real rival for Microsoft Office.


10GB of email storage?

Outlook 2003 and Outlook 2007 can, in theory handle data storage into the terabyte range – in practice 20GB seems the agreed practical limit. Though you have to make sure your PST files are in the more recent format.

In practice Outlook is very sluggish with gigabytes of storage under its control. The search functions slow to a crawl or apparently don’t work at all. Simply switching folders can be an exercise in frustration. Having a faster computer with more RAM helps Outlook deal with the load, but not enough.

(last issue we asked readers about problems with Outlook 2007’s search functions and heard from many very unhappy people).

We’ve not tested it fully but the indications are that Gmail handles large email storage much better. The search function is much faster and sub-folders switch with ease.

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