Google Apps and Microsoft: Frenemies in More Offices, for Now

While many paint the Google Apps vs. Microsoft Office question as an either/or proposition, more companies are finding the two products complementary. Here's how one state government agency found the right mix by installing Google Apps for more employee flexibility.

Google recently celebrated the 3 millionth business to sign on for Google Apps. Although it's hard to tell what that really means because Google Apps revenue is still tiny, the milestone does signify customer growth and momentum.

But what exactly happens when a company "Goes Google"? It would be nice, certainly for Google, if businesses were replacing everything with Google Apps. But that is not usually the case, according to Google Apps customers and industry analysts. Google Apps are being used primarily to save money ($50 per user per year for Google Apps Premier Edition) and work in conjunction with Office applications and e-mail systems such as Outlook and Lotus Notes.

Google Apps may indeed be a soup-to-nuts solution for a start-up company. But for companies with more than 100 employees Google Apps is an affordable way to get rid of those clunky Exchange servers. Does it mean the end of Outlook? No. If users can't live without the Outlook interface, Google Apps Sync for Outlook is an option (though not all companies like it).

Also, you won't see many companies mandating that everyone drop Office and start using Google Docs. Most users are too comfortable using Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

"You may see enterprises move to Google for e-mail, but rarely will you see them replacing Microsoft Office with Google Docs," says Ted Schadler, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

"Google Apps will continue to have success with its collaboration and mobile features that augment Office. But I don't see it displacing Office."

A healthy combination of Google Apps features and Office/Outlook is giving organizations what they need for now.

One such organization is Greenwood County, located in western South Carolina. The county, with a population of 65,000, an employee base of 300 and an IT staff of three, recently switched from a mix of on-premise Exchange and a free Unix-based e-mail system to Google Apps.

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The Google Apps installation, which took two months to migrate 300 users and was facilitated by third-party provider Cloud Sherpas, was a way to consolidate two disjointed e-mail systems that were drowning in spam, says Greenwood County IT director Brad Barnell.

"Our research showed us that Google Apps has the best spam filtering for e-mail. That was big for us because we'd had so many problems there," says Barnell.

He also evaluated Microsoft's BPOS (business productivity online services) suite, but found Google Apps' spam protection and lower price attractive enough to "Go Google."

All 280 Greenwood county employees in offices ranging from public works, tax collector, emergency services and parks and recreation are using Google Apps. Despite Google's shaky reputation for customer service, in the five months since Google Apps was installed, Barnell has no complaints. His one customer service call thus far was over an issue connecting Google Apps to the scan-to-e-mail functionality of older printers.

"Google gave us good guidance on how to configure the printers and we got scan-to-e-mail working pretty quickly," says Barnell.

Greenwood employees can choose what features within Google Apps they want to use. For e-mail, half are using Gmail, but the other half, accustomed to Outlook's interface, are using Google Apps Sync for Outlook, a plug-in that synchronizes Outlook e-mail, calendar and contacts with Google Apps.

"It's as if you're using Exchange only it loads a little slower because your Outlook e-mails are getting downloaded from Google servers. But no users have complained," says Barnell.

The biggest benefits for employees, he adds, are the ability to check e-mail on their smartphones and anywhere there is an Internet connection.

As for Microsoft Office, Barnell is not replacing it with Google Docs. All Google Docs are available to Greenwood employees but none are using them. Familiarity with Microsoft Office applications still reigns, as it does in most organizations.

"Some employees are using features like Google Chat [instant messaging], but all our employees still use Microsoft Office desktop software."

However, Barnell is not optimistic about the future of expensive client-based productivity apps like Office. He recommends organizations take a good look at their user base to see who really needs Office, and also evaluate Web-based productivity apps because they are the future.

"Office is big bucks ... I'm comfortable using it now but I'm assuming that within four years we'll be using something completely cloud-based. And that's probably when we'll be using Google Docs more."

Shane O'Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for CIO.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Shane at soneill@cxo.com.

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