Google has introduced an industrial-strength version of the web applications it launched last August.
The initial, free offering, Google Apps for Your Domain, was targeted at small to medium sized businesses, and Google says more than 100,000 small businesses and hundreds of universities now use the service.
Google has now renamed its initial offering Google Apps Standard Edition. It now includes Gmail accounts, enhanced for mobile access on BlackBerrys, a shared calendar, Google Talk instant messaging, access to Google Docs & Spreadsheets and a Web page creator.
This has been joined by Google Apps Premier Edition, designed for businesses of all sizes (read: targeted at the enterprise). GAPE (an unfortunately acronym) costs US$50 a year per user. There is no separate UK pricing, but for your £25 you get a 99.9 percent uptime guarantee for e-mail, additional e-mail 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 $50 per year for each using Google Checkout. A free trial is in effect until April 30, but during signup 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 ($10/year) using a Google partner such as GoDaddy, and pay for the domain using Google Checkout.
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 Web site; set up e-mail 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 containing the changes.
As the administrator, the Start page is basically a portal you set up for your users. You define the basic look (choosing colours for the header, text, backgrounds, etc.) and elements (calendar, weather, news headlines from a variety of content providers, and so on) 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.
For our site (using the domain enterpriseofficetips.com), the URL to our Start page was http://start.enterpriseofficetips.com, which redirected to http://partnerpage.google.com/enterpriseofficetips.com. This page displayed a skeleton Start page with a link to log in to the system with a user name and password set up by the administrator.
The Web Page builder, with which you build your public-facing Web site, lets you select from several basic layouts, choose colours for text and backgrounds, and so on. Other Web tools I've used for easy Web site 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.com-a.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 wish.
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 $999. CompanionLink for Google Calendar allows users to synchronize appointments and recurring events (including details) between Google Apps and Microsoft Outlook, PDAs and phones.
Also of interest to IT departments is Google's assertion that because it hosts the service, there's nothing to install and updates are automatically applied. That's mostly true, but users will still have to download Google Talk to use that IM feature (you can disable Chat for your users if you wish).
Google Apps Premier Edition has been described 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. So, GAPE isn't an Office killer and isn't designed to be.
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 e-mail accounts and a decent Web site builder for $39.95/month. Office Live Premium offers several features Google lacks, such as Web site reports. Furthermore, OLP 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 for any business. And GAPE's guaranteed 99.9 percent e-mail 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).
Given all the features and tools that come with the free Standard edition of Google Apps, businesses may have a hard time justifying $50 per user per year for the Premium edition. For 100 users, that's $5,000 a year, basically for some telephone support (which you probably won't need, the interface is so intuitive), guaranteed e-mail uptime, more e-mail storage and an API or two. It is up to IT departments to decide if that is worth it for them.
To sign up here for any version of Google Apps or get more information.