Google Apps Premier Edition a Mixed Bag

Google Apps Premier Edition is a hosted collaboration and productivity application platform that combines a customizable start page with chat, e-mail, calendaring, word processing, a spreadsheet and a simple Web page builder into a package that Google sells for $50 per user per year.

While the components worked well for us overall in our tests, we found that Google has yet to iron out all the wrinkles in its suite. For example, we had problems creating an event on the calendar from information contained in a Google Mail message.

Small and midsize companies that lack IT staff but need collaborative tools that allow shared calendaring, documents and spreadsheets, along with e-mail and chat, should put Google Apps on their evaluation shortlist.

Aside from the compelling price compared to other on-demand collaborative suites, Google Apps Mail component comes with 10GB of storage and is equipped with Google’s ubiquitous search capabilities. Even these features, however, must be examined with a critical eye by business managers who want to use the suite for online collaboration.

For example, search is currently confined to individual modules and does not go across all the information that is accessible to the user. During our tests, this meant that we had to conduct separate searches in the suite’s Mail and Docs and Sheets (word processor and spreadsheet) modules, rather than find what we sought in a single search. Google officials said there are no announced plans to unify search.

In order to take advantage of the optional partner-provided add-ons that are available for use with Google Apps, businesses will need some dedicated IT staff or consultant help. For instance, there’s a SSO (Single Sign-On) component offered by Sxip Identity, which allowed us to integrate our Google Apps user authentication data with Microsoft’s Active Directory.

Other add-ons that enable Google Apps to integrate with existing infrastructure include CompanionLink for Google Calendar, which allows users to synchronize appointments with PDAs and smart phones running Palm, Windows Mobile, PocketPC and BlackBerry operating systems. These add-on products generally cost about $30 per user per year each and can quickly boost the cost of Google Apps beyond what Google charges for the base product.

Document Collaboration

We liked the group collaboration tools built into Google Docs, which make it easy for us to create documents with basic formatting while keeping track of the comments, changes and associated message threads of the team members with whom we collaborated.

Communication is a big part of the collaborative experience in Google Apps, and Google Mail is the cornerstone of communication in Google Apps. Users of Gmail will already be familiar with collapsed threads, where messages on a particular discussion are collapsed onto a single line in the Mail interface. The thread can be selected and expanded so that the whole conversation can be seen in order. Even more than the space-saving characteristics of collapsed threading, we liked having all messages neatly together.

Google Mail makes extensive use of threads. Our threads included both e-mail messages and instant message chats. This meant that all communication relevant to a project or topic was easily at hand, a big step in the right direction for collaboration tools.

To read about Google Gears, Google’s tool for adding offline capabilities to its Web applications, click here.

The IM component, called Talk, is an integrated tool and was available from inside the browser window. There is no separate download or client needed to enable chat.

It was clear from our tests that Google engineers are looking for ways to leverage search to provide helpful suggestions to users. Whenever an e-mail message in our tests contained an address, Google Apps would offer to map the location. This got a little repetitive and somewhat annoying since my e-mail signature line contains eWEEK’s San Francisco address.

Google’s Spreadsheets module has advanced significantly and was able to import a fairly complex expense report with almost no problems. We imported a multipage expense form with formulas including mileage calculating fields into Google Apps sheets module. With the exception of the Ziff Davis logo, all the pages and formulas were correctly imported into the Sheets module.

New chart creation technology allowed us to generate rudimentary pie, bar and scatter graphs based on the data in our sheets. Charting, along with most other basic functions of Sheets are quite rudimentary at this point. For example, we weren’t able to create charts that showed all our expenses with the correct labels because Google Sheets chart wizard is inflexible when it comes to designating the cells that should be used for label generation.

One thing we quickly noticed about the interface for Google Apps is its tendency to sprout browser windows like mushrooms after a rain. The advantage of this type of interface is that we were able to Alt-Tab between windows to get information we needed quickly. The disadvantage is that, during our tests, we usually ended up with at least 10 or more windows open on the desktop, which tended to be quite dizzying.

Group Calendars

Group calendaring in Google Apps is an interesting mixture of public and private information, and one of the modules that seems least “Googlefied.” By Googlefied, we mean the concept of forgoing metadata in favor of using search to find all relevant work items.

In Google Calendar, which looks and acts similar to any other calendar in commercial use, calendars are created for individual users, resources, projects and any other event-driven project.
It makes sense that individuals have their own calendar. In our tests, it also became clear that segregating events onto separate calendars for particular projects and resources was the clearest way to view event information. For example, we created a calendar for edit production schedules that combined both print and online deadlines. We had a separate calendar for each of our conference rooms and other shared resources such as conference call telephone numbers.

By creating separate calendars, we were then able to check availability of resources quite easily when creating events. Calendars appeared in a list along the left side of our calendar screen. It was simple to select calendars, search calendars for information, and schedule and modify events.

Google Mail also had a hard time adding events to the calendar based on information from the mail message. The message almost always got parsed correctly—the date, time and purpose of the meeting was automatically filled into the correct fields in the event detail. However, we were never able to successfully add an event created in this manner to any calendar.

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