Is Google’s Free Office Suite A Good Solution For Small Business?

Google’s premium suite of office software tools can help small businesses with document collaboration and management of business information. However, Jonathan Blum warns about some of the shortfalls …

Google’s premium suite of office software tools can help small businesses with document collaboration and management of business information. However, Jonathan Blum warns about some of the shortfalls of the free Google Apps Standard Edition, which he says is not robust enough for many businesses. See the following post from The Street for more on this.

When is a freebie too expensive?

Back in June, software giant Google(GOOG_) began a viral marketing campaign to push its paid Google Apps Premier Edition line of office tools and software. Dubbed “Gone Google,” this interactive marketing effort offers an online calculation tool for how much money a firm will “save” by passing up its free version and instead spending $50 per person per year, which amounts to $300 in my six-person firm.

Guess how much I am supposed to save. A whole $31,248! No kidding! Try it yourself!

Google gets to this number by claiming that, among many things, my people will be 2.8 times more productive, spend 167 fewer hours dealing with spam, have 10 times fewer documents to manage and overall save oodles of cash with Google Apps Premier’s 99.9% uptime guarantee.

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I have been testing the free Google Apps Standard Edition for 18 months, and this week I’m upgrading to the paid Premier version. In general my six-person company has found Google Apps useful, but we are not paying up out of journalistic curiosity: It is because we have to.

The free version, like a lot of free content online, has become so cranky that we want to see if the paid version offers the stability and service we need.

Here’s why:

Uneven quality of service for accessing documents

For all of Google Apps’ power in document collaboration — it really does represent the state of the art in Web-based collaboration tools — getting access to these files, at least in the free version, can be maddeningly unstable. The system does work, but only about 9 out of 10 times in our usage across the New York metropolitan area and in Arizona, Michigan and Connecticut. For that incredibly frustrating 10th time, we had server updating issues, slow content updates or otherwise could not access our documents reliably. We often had to resort to making Word documents and e-mailing them back and forth.

Google, which declined to comment directly for this story, openly states that the 99.9% uptime guarantee is for the Premier product only. And I look forward to seeing an improvement in stability when we upgrade. But the fact is, if you try to run your business from the Standard Edition, make sure you keep copies of important documents, and use a local e-mail client such as Microsoft’s(MSFT_) Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird, which syncs with your Google Apps mail at all times. With the free edition, you just never know when you can get to your work.

Customer service is just a concept with the free edition

Also on the rugged side in the Google Apps Standard edition, at least in our experience, was troubleshooting. Yes, Google offered customer service to solve problems, but considering the complexity of Web-based office tools — the connections themselves, browser conflicts and issues with mobile platforms — logically solving problems was a time-consuming and trial-and-error affair that never made logical sense to me.

Contacts are not business-class

Finally, what makes Google Apps Standard Edition a nonstarter for businesses is how it handles who your business knows. If you are trying to work in the free edition, contacts are found in a directory of links along the left side of the Google Apps Mail page. We consistently found these contacts slow to load and difficult to share among our group. In fact, we use a third-party tool called BatchBook precisely because contacts were so unmanageable. I am eager to test the updated contacts functions in the Premier edition.

Bottom line: If your business is just getting started or is looking for a low-cost, cloud-based collab tool, by all means use Standard Edition. But if you are committing to one business tool and that tool is Google Apps, the free Standard Edition is just not robust enough.

Considering the time and effort we put into dealing with this unstable solution, Google Apps Standard Edition might just be the most expensive piece of free software ever.

This article has been republished from The Street. You can also view this article at
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