Google Apps lures early adopters with low price, easy setup

Microsoft still the dominant player in office tools market, but Google is making some inroads

Max Hoberman helped make the Halo video game series a hit for Microsoft's Xbox consoles, but when he founded his own business he decided to use the e-mail and calendar services offered by Microsoft's rival Google.

Hoberman's new game development company, Certain Affinity, doesn't have any dedicated IT staff, so the practical benefits of using Google Apps were obvious -- it's free and easy to set up, Hoberman notes.

"I'm a UI designer by trade, so I care a lot about the interface," says Hoberman, who was the multiplayer and online lead designer for all three Halo video games. "I'm a huge fan of the interface for the Google applications. ... But to be completely honest, the thing that really decided it for me is it's free and we had it up and running quickly."

There are a couple of holdouts among Hoberman's 17 employees who still use Microsoft Outlook for e-mail, but most of the staff has fully converted to Google Apps, he says.

Like Microsoft Office, Hoberman notes that Google does a good job providing a shared calendar program, and he thinks it does a better job with certain features like threaded e-mail conversations. "I used to try and set up Outlook to do threaded conversations," Hoberman says. "It's really hard to do it well in Outlook. Outlook does a silly thing -- it turns every e-mail into the start of the thread, and it just gets ugly and messy."

Microsoft remains the dominant player in the office tools market. But Google and its suite of e-mail, instant messaging and VoIP tools is making some inroads, particularly with small customers such as Certain Affinity, which began using Apps about six months ago.

Google Apps Premier Edition, a juiced-up version of what Hoberman uses, costs US$50 per user per year and has extra services such as e-mail migration, 24-hour phone support and 25GB e-mail storage.

That's the version used by Core10 Architecture, a company with fewer than 10 employees that wanted collaboration tools and options for telecommuters without the burden of managing a heavy IT infrastructure.

"I'm not interested in hosting anything here, or managing any kind of access like that," says Michael Byrd, who describes himself as a half owner, half IT manager. "It's all we can do to just have our own network."

Both Hoberman and Byrd were able to set Google Apps up for their employees in just one day.

"The ease of setup is what made it appealing," Byrd says. "There were other ways we could get set up to share documents and share calendars, but none of them were easy."

Google has limitations, Byrd notes. It offers word processing with Google Docs, but the program doesn't suit the needs of Core10, which has to produce many documents for clients. Core10 still uses Microsoft Word for a lot of its written correspondence.

"As an architectural firm, we are careful about the look of all the documents," Byrd says. "I don't have enough flexibility [in Google] with the graphical layout, the look of the finished documents, to do everyday work in."

Hoberman has run into some annoying attributes of Google's e-mail service, though he says the positives outweigh the negatives. The Premier Edition lacked e-mail migration tools when Hoberman installed Google Apps at Certain Affinity, so he just got the free version and moved e-mail manually.

The biggest downside is not having offline access to e-mail, Hoberman says. Google has built an open source technology for building Web applications that work offline called Google Gears, but for now Hoberman says the only way to access his Gmail offline is to periodically download messages into Microsoft Outlook.

"As long as Google keeps improving the service, it would be pretty hard for us to ever switch," Hoberman says. "If they just left it alone in its current state, we'd get to the point where the minor frustrations get to us."

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