About two months ago our exchange server died for the last time and we decided to move our email & calendar solution to Google applications for domains.
The reasons were easy.
- We don't like running and maintaining servers. Like most small businesses we have better things to do.
- Certain collaboration features of Exchange just don't work as we need. Sharing a calendar doesn't work well. Stopping spam doesn't work well. Public folders or public calendars don't work well.
- Our requirements for email/calendar are pretty basic so a web solution that does the basics really well can be better then a feature rich solution.
- One of the key features of Exchange is being able to take your email with you. The problem is you're always syncing or repairing PST files. If you're usually online the syncing pain isn't worth it.
- We now have Mac's and PC's, using Parallels to load Outlook isn't that much fun and having a consistent experience as I move between computers is very desirable.
- Cost wasn't a major consideration. That said the Google solution is much cheaper (free). Even if we paid the $50/user for expanded storage it's still under $500/year for our small business. Microsoft Small business server is around $450 for 5 users. The TCO for the Microsoft solution is higher because of the admin requirements to backup, patch & repair issues. For a small business this is huge. (Hosted excahnge solutions tend to be more expensive as well)
Ok, it's been four weeks what works, what doesn't?
- Gmail - The overall Gmail interface is good. Having access to email/calendar from any computer with a web-browser is more powerfull then I expected.
- The core interactions work well and it does a supurb job with spam filtering.
- Some of the core interactions such as keyboard shortcuts, right click just don't exist or don't map to what I'm used to in a desktop application.
- Load time is slow for a web-page but reasonable in relation to Outlook.
- Gmail uses tags instead of folders. Tags are similar to what Outlook calls 'categories'. Overall I don't think tags are as useful as folders. With folders you store things once. With tags you can store things multiple times. This makes tags heavy weight for basic organization tasks. Tags are certainly more powerful but the coganizational boost is not apparent. Google docs recently added folders to their interface so I suspect a similar addition may be in the works for Gmail.
- Email in a browser is good but not great. You can't paste an image from the clipboard into a message. You can't attach a file by dropping it on the message. Outlook does give you more formating flexibility. 90% of the time you don't care but when you do care, you tend to care a lot.
- Support for multiple email addresses under one account is limited. You can do it but you can't have multiple email signatures for each account (nor can you switch quickly).
- The calendar application does a poor job at reminding you of events from the browser. It partly makes up for this by having the ability to send reminders to your phone and allowing you to subscribe to your calendar from other tools and applications that fill this gap.
- Searching on gmail is great. It's relatively fast and it's built in. Office only added full text search in it's 2007 version.
- Tasks/ToDo are painfully missing in the Google solution. There are a number of Firefox plug-ins and greasmonkey scripts that do a poor job of fixing this deficiency. I suspect that Task lists will get added in the coming years. Till then I've been using TaDaList from 37 Signals.
- The Outlook solution is well coupled and tightly integrated. Switching from email to calendar and back is instant. With the Google solution it's slow to move from one app to another and back. Google provides some basic shortcuts but overall it's a sore spot. Applications open in a separate tab/window and it's not easy to move things back and forth. I'm used to taking an email and dragging it to the calendar to create an appointment on the spot. With the Gmail solution it's not quite as elegant. One thing that google does well with Calendar is the ability to type a line like "Dinner on Thursday at 7 with Kathy" and it'll create the event automatically.
- Give me a preview pane. Gmail is missing the preview pane for messages. This forces a navigation and a context switch for each email. The application does some clever AJAX to keep this transition very fast but the context switch forces you to refocus each time you go back and forth. This also makes keyboarding through messages much slower...
- Speaking of keyboards, accessibility with the Google solution seems lacking. Google has done a good job of adding some keyboard shortcuts but I haven't been able to quickly arrow through messages. With a Windows or Mac applications you can learn the keyboard shortcut by looking at the menu. With Google applications it's burried in the help documentation.
Solid B+ Some things are better some things are worse. The transition pain was minimal and overall I do like it. The ease of administration is absolutely wonderful. If you're a small business (under 25 people) it's a great move. The spam filtering has saved me hours. If you're in a larger organization you'll need to consider those missing features further. If you're a small business this is the best choice for a hosted email/calendar solution I've seen.