Can Google Apps Unseat Microsoft Office and Exchange?

An Eye-Opening Set of Results

To his surprise, Grady says that "those of us that participated in the pilot quickly figured out that we really, really like Outlook -- even when we think we don't. We know how to make it work. Many of us have been using it for more years than we might care to admit and we know and love all its little quirks and idiosyncrasies. We miss them when they're not there. We set up exotic and elaborate folder structures to organize our emails. We are suddenly nostalgic for the odd little irrational ways that calendars behave on recurring meetings. Sure, it was crazy. But it was a crazy that we knew."

Here's what Grady and his team discovered regarding its three criteria:

Functionality. Overall, the functionality score was about even between Google Apps for Business and Office/Exchange.

Some things were much easier to accomplish with Google Apps for Business, such as on-the-fly document collaboration. Google Docs makes it extremely easy, with practically no set-up, for multiple parties to begin collaborating on the same document at the same time right away. Of all the Google Apps tested, Google Docs "received the most positive response overall" from testers because of its "self-service set-up" and the ease of use in collaborating, Grady says.

On the other hand, Google Apps for Business presented some roadblocks that are not an issue with Office/Exchange Server. New England Biolabs users found that Google Docs' document formatting options were more limited than those in Office, Grady says. In particular, testers really missed Microsoft Word's Track Changes feature when collaborating on text documents in Google Docs.

Though Google Docs doesn't have a directly equivalent feature to Track Changes, the text-editing app allows you to highlight portions of a document and add a comment noting the edit, a Google spokesman says. The comment appears in the document's right-hand column.

New England Biolabs users also wanted to work on documents offline, such as on a long plane flight without Internet access, a capability not offered in Google Docs.

Gmail presented another obstacle. Most users have years of archived email in Outlook, which are organized using Outlook's folder structure, Grady said. In lieu of folders, Gmail uses labels to organize messages (and incorporates Google search technology to help you find older emails).

"The idea of just using search as an organizational tool sounds good in theory, but the mental leap of getting used to the differences was higher than we expected," Grady says. "And that raised a question: How much value will each user get from teaching themselves how to use email all over again? I use my inbox to manage my workload. It's a habit I've formed over time, and I'm not sure the investment in time to break that habit is worth it."

In addition, administrative staff members involved in the test found Outlook 2010 for Windows and Office for Mac 2011 to be much improved in its ability to manage more than four calendars simultaneously and easier to use than Google Calendar, Grady says.

During the Google pilot test, one reason for considering Google Apps for Business -- to eliminate IT challenges related to supporting Macs as well as Windows computers -- became a moot point. New England Biolabs upgraded to the latest version of Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010, which caused its "Mac support issues to be much less critical," according to Grady.

Office for Mac 2011 allows users to upload, download, edit and collaborate on native Mac Office documents stored on a SharePoint site. Also, during the Google Apps proof-of-concept test, IT migrated its Mac users to Microsoft Outlook, part of Office for Mac 2011, and away from Entourage, the email client included in previous versions of Office for Mac. Outlook for the Mac includes much-improved support for Exchange Server.

Cost. By going with Google Apps, the company would have achieved some costs savings, Grady notes. "We would have been able to retire some hardware in our IT infrastructure, and from that standpoint, Google Apps came out ahead," he says. "But we'd never be able to fully eliminate Microsoft software like Word or PowerPoint, so we'd always have some level of Microsoft spend. And as a midsized company, we didn't have enough leverage to negotiate a substantial discount from either Google or Microsoft."

As a result, adding the $50 per user annual costs of Google Apps for Business to at least some level of Microsoft Office licensing would have only, overall, saved the company a small amount of money.

Change management. In this particular area, "the answer was a unanimous and loud 'it's just not worth it,'" Grady says. "Re-teaching ourselves a bunch of tricks to use email and document sharing would distract us from research, sequencing that next genome, making and selling enzymes, supporting our customers, and all of those other things we do every day to keep our business competitive."

When all was said and done, about 90 percent of testers said no to switching to Google Apps for Business. The 10 percent who voted yes were all in the IT department, Grady noted. "Even those who use Google tools outside of work found that Google Apps for Business didn't really work the way they wanted it to. These people would have been the ones we would have had to convince to make the change, and they ended up convincing themselves not to. They helped us make the decision to stay with Microsoft."

Tips for Companies Contemplating the Switch

What advice does Grady have for organizations weighing the pros and cons of Google Apps for Business vs. the Outlook/Exchange Server platform?

"Never underestimate change management," he says. "It's at least as important as the financial considerations. Email, calendar and document collaboration are fundamental to how people work. While you could save some money making the switch, you could also lose a lot of productivity, which would negate the cost savings."

When pilot testing something like Google Apps for Business, CIOs should involve not just IT but people from various departments across the business, Grady advised. "Look for real advocates of the technology who can give you objective feedback. If it doesn't work out, you don't have to go back and try to sell the advocates on the reasons why it didn't work," he said. "Also, it becomes a decision you make as a team, which makes it easier to get buy-in from the rest of the organization."

James A. Martin is technology journalist. He writes a CIO.com mobile apps blog that focuses on iOS and Android devices.

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