Last August, Google introduced a collection of Web applications designed for small to mid-size businesses that it called Google Apps for Your Domain. The free service, now renamed Google Apps Standard Edition, included Gmail accounts (since enhanced for mobile access on BlackBerrys), a shared calendar, Google Talk instant messaging, access to Google Docs & Spreadsheets (see our review), and a Web page creator. Google says more than 100,000 small businesses and hundreds of universities now use the service.
Now Google has introduced an industrial-strength version, Google Apps Premier Edition, designed for businesses of all sizes (read: targeted at the enterprise). GAPE (an unfortunately acronym, we'd say) costs US$50 a year per user, which includes 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. (Go to Google for more information or sign up for any version of Google Apps.)
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 subdomain 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/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 enroll (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 colors 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 username 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 colors 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.