Google’s cloudy Outlook

I was asked yesterday to give my opinion on Google Apps, specifically the features that come with the MS Office competitors that are wrapped up in Google Docs. The context was for rollout within a small organisation of around 20 people, one heavily based on technology.

The base offering behind Google Apps is solid and wonderful. It allows you to manage your email for people across your organisation through a single, rich, web-based application. It gives each person over 7Gb of storage, 25Gb if you pay $50 per user per year. It allows you to sync, if you wish, back to Outlook or some other mail client while retaining a copy of everything you send and receive in the Cloud. (I’ve been using it for over four years and have used less than 3Gb of storage, without ever having deleted a single non-spam email.) My biggest bugbear with the interface is that I can’t default to Georgia, my font of choice.

Its calendar features are OK too. Google offers much of the functionality offered in Outlook, although there are some things that need development. I attached a couple of documents to a calendar invite the other day and found out that the documents come through as Google links (not great from my own branding perspective), and that these links could not be accessed through one of my clients’ firewalls. Probably not a problem for everyone, but they won’t be unique in that situation either.

But when it comes to the core creative tools—the competitors to Word, Excel and PowerPoint—Google doesn’t yet cut the mustard. For basic word processing, it’s fine. You can write a letter, do some nice formatting, write a proposal and the like. Some of the more advanced MS Word features are lacking—document review, for example—but the feature set on offer probably caters for 90% of requirements for 90% of users. All users will be frustrated at the lack of something they rely on, but in most instances, it won’t be a showstopper.

Spreadsheets are a different story altogether. Excel’s feature set is rich. Rich beyond words. There are things that Excel does that we take for granted, both in terms of core functionality and navigational behaviour. Google’s is not. It caters for some very base requirements, but beyond that, it struggles. I tried to copy and paste some cells from an Excel spreadsheet into Google Docs the other day, and it failed miserably to deal with ALT+Enter in-cell carriage returns.  It’s fine for your very basic spreadsheets: some contacts, some basic financial information. But anything much more complex: forget it.

As for presentations, I have no experience of using these, so can’t really comment.

I subscribe to an internal Google forum that notifies me whenever new functionality comes on board. A while ago, I was getting emails every day describing the new functionality on offer, each relatively trivial in itself, but slowly chipping away on the leviathan that is MS Office. Lately, the emails have been very few and very far between. I don’t know whether this is a strategic change in direction by Google or merely a temporary blip before further onslaught.

So in a nutshell, you should fall over yourself to get your email and calendar on to Google Apps. But for now, don’t throw away your Office licences.

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