Last week I set up a Google apps account to investigate the potential for using it as a replacement for Microsoft Exchange, given that we only really rely on Exchange to share calendars. Today I finally got chance to properly look into the fixtures and fittings of Google apps and I must say that my initial impression is very positive.
Although I had used Google Calendars before, and found the user experience to be a very positive one, especially for a browser based application, I had not really investigated the other aspects of the apps suite and that was the aim of this afternoon. Google apps is actually a very simple system and that is one of the things that appeals to me about it, the manual for exchange is about a foot thick and I would say that its a typical case of Microsoft over engineering. It is quite unfair in some ways to compare these 2 products because Exchange does lots of things that apps does not, however as a small office I would say Google is closer to fulfilling our requirement for information sharing.
So to the details, there are only 3 elements of apps which really interest me at present and these are in order of importance, calendars, email and finally the personalised start page. Of course each of these elements have been available on an individual basis for sometime but the new apps for domains approach allows one person to administer these systems for an entire office. The first thing you have to do is provide the domain, it would have been possible to sign over our existing brunningandprice domain and then link back to the website and use Gmail as our primary email system but I am not quite ready to take a jump like that so I got a new one for a mighty £2 pa :o)
One of the really nice features becomes apparent at this point, if you want to create user accounts for 20 odd people you can simply fill in an excel spreadsheet and Google will quite happily auto generate your user accounts. Easy. You can even set a global setting to ask all your new users to change their password when they first log on and preset their sharing options to allow everyone access to each other calendars. At this point if we were happy to use online systems the job is done, everyone has an account, email, calendar and even instant messaging.
The next thing I wanted to look at was the personalised start page, everyone in our office almost without exception uses Google as their start page anyway so to have the opportunity to add their calendar and email to this was quite appealing. It turns out that this system is again very simple to use and I simply popped our logo on the top of the page and dropped in each users calendar, email preview, to-do list and even a link our internal applications. I think we will get compadre Rob to use a bit of his design magic on this page if the idea takes off.
So far so good, the task for tomorrow is to make a decision about how best to approach using the email, should we simply have one pop3 account or route the existing mail via Gmail, my initial reaction is no however Gmail is a rather nifty web mail system compared to our existing service... tempting. Also its time to start throwing some larger calendars up and seeing what happens to performance, I'll keep you posted.