Unless you've been running your business out of a cave in the Himalayas, you know that software has undergone some major changes over the past few years. Budget-minded small businesses are taking the online application leap. Google Apps is the pack leader when it comes to Internet office suites. "Google Apps competes in the market with other productivity suites like Microsoft and Lotus," says Susan Cline, director of learning at Dito, a Manassas, Va.-based Google Apps reseller and consultancy.
One of the biggest factors driving small businesses to shack up with Google Apps is the cost. Microsoft Office Home and Business 2010 costs $280, while Office Professional runs $500 per license. Google Apps costs $50 per user per year for the Premier edition. "It really works for certain businesses that don't have the budget to buy the licenses or host the on-site servers," Cline says. According to Google, more than 2 million businesses use Google Apps, with thousands more piling on each day. There is still some confusion about the whole cloud computing concept.
Still on the fence about Google Apps? Here are five things you need to know.
1. It's more than just Gmail.
Gmail may be the movie star of the Google Apps group, but it's surrounded by a supporting cast that includes Google's Calendar, Docs, Sites, Video, Groups and Wave apps. Gmail and Calendar speak for themselves. Docs covers word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, drawings and forms. Sites can be used a create a website, collaborate on a wiki or build out a business intranet. Google Video handles your online video hosting and streaming needs and includes private sharing within the company. Groups is for mailing lists and the sharing of documents and other projects. Wave is a somewhat mysterious real time communication and collaboration tool that Google recently announced it would halt development on. You can give it a try, but it may not be available forever.
Many of these apps are also available to the general public, but there are professionalism and control perks to going full-on with Apps, rather than signing up piecemeal for consumer accounts. When you use Google Apps, you drop the @gmail.com and use your own domain. "It is more professional to have your own domain name in your e-mail address," Cline says. "It also allows you to restrict sharing of documents and calendars and videos to just within your domain and the people you work with."
2. Choose an edition.
Most businesses will have to choose between the Standard and Premier editions. Education and non-profit options are also available. Standard is the stripped-down, free version with just Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs and Google Sites and a 50-user limit. Premier goes nuts by offering the rest of the app suite, 25 GB of e-mail storage per user, extra security controls, 24/7 support and a 99.9 percent up-time guarantee that should ease a lot of worries about the reliability of cloud computing. "The Standard edition would be appropriate if you have a community group or a family or a team," Cline says. "Businesses want to choose the Premier edition. There is more technical support, and it works better with other business applications."
3. It doesn't have to be all or nothing.
Moving to Google Apps doesn't mean surrendering everything you knew before. You may want to hang onto some of your old software packages. "There are some people who are really heavy users of Microsoft Office who do complex spreadsheet formatting," Cline says. "In those cases, Google Docs may not have all of those features they need. For most people, Google Docs will have the features they need to do standard documents and spreadsheets." Users dedicated to Microsoft Outlook can bridge the old and new worlds by implementing Google Apps Sync for Outlook. "For people nervous about the Web version or switching to a new interface, they can still use that familiar skin of Outlook," Cline says. This can be a smart way to move older workers with entrenched tech habits into Web-based e-mail.
4. Get up to speed.
The pace of innovation is one factor that sets cloud computing services like Google Apps apart from traditional software. Instead of upgrading every few years, the upgrades come out in constant, incremental additions. Cline recommends subscribing to the Google Apps Blog as a way to keep up with new updates and features you can put to work in your business right away. Many entrepreneurs also have to wear the IT hat for their businesses. The easiest way to get going as a Google Apps administrator is to go through Google's boot camp with the Google Apps Setup Guide.
5. You can take it with you.
Mobile is hot stuff right now and it's not cooling down anytime soon. If you're going to invest in new technology, you want it to play nice with your company smartphones. "Google Apps works well with iPhones, BlackBerrys and Droids with the applications that are built into those devices, or you can view your docs, mail and calendar on the Web," Cline says. Businesses running BlackBerry Enterprise Server can also integrate Apps in with the familiar BlackBerry system. For more old-school businesses, Google Apps has the mobility advantage that all Web-based applications do: You can use it on any Web-connected computer. That includes laptops, any phone with a Web browser or for-hire computers in a business center.
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 8/20/10.