The trouble with going Google: Four reasons why I got out

Two eager Google Apps adopters found out the hard way that the cloud apps didn't really do the job they needed

Having been in the enterprise productivity apps game for only three years, Google has made impressive strides with Google Apps, its Web-based messaging and collaboration suite.

Since the 2007 introduction, Google has gone from zero to more than 2 million business customers with high-profile examples that include Jaguar Land Rover, Motorola, Konica Minolta, and fashion conglomerate Roberto Cavalli.

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Google has also won Google Apps deals with government agencies such as City of Orlando and City of Los Angeles (where all is not rosy) and sold state-wide school district migrations in Maryland, Oregon, Iowa, and Colorado.

Google Apps' big draw is still price. For $50 per user, per year companies get 25GB of email storage through Gmail along with Google Calendar, Google Talk, and Google Groups. Collaboration apps such as Google Docs, Google Sites, and Google Video are also included. As part of the deal, Google promises 99.9 percent uptime reliability and 24/7 customer support with Google Apps.

But Google Apps doesn't work for everyone.

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Both Aisle 7, a small health and wellness marketing company, and Serena Software, a midsize maker of change management software, left Microsoft for GAPE (Google Apps Premier Edition) then switched back, choosing Microsoft's more expensive cloud-based service, BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite).

Among the pain points both companies cite: Hits to email productivity and insufficient customer support.

1. Email interface quirks drive Outlook users away

Aisle 7, a small health and wellness marketing company that provides content for Web sites and in-house kiosks for stores such as Whole Foods and Wal-Mart, moved to Google Apps for its 32 users in early 2009 mostly because of the low price and 25GB of email storage space.

Hamstrung by an Exchange server that was failing and costly to manage, Aisle 7 needed to save money, says IT manager Jake Harris. Aisle 7's did not want to have Google Apps replace Outlook and Office, but rather complement them.

"We quickly realized that the attitude of our users was: 'Take Outlook from my cold, dead hands,'" says Harris. "Only 10 people were using Gmail for email initially and within three months it was down to two people. Most did not like how threaded messaging and meeting requests work in Gmail."

A big selling point for Aisle 7 was Outlook Connector (officially called Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook), a plug-in that synchronizes Outlook email, calendar, and contacts with Google Apps. "Google promised that it would have the same feature parity as when you have Exchange on-premise. But neither Outlook Connector nor Gmail worked well," Harris says.

In Gmail, a frequent irritation for Harris was that there is no way to resend a message (as opposed to forwarding), which can come in handy if you have a regular email that you send out each month. This is something that you can do in Outlook.

In Outlook Connector, a problem for Aisle 7's users was with meeting requests. One example: If Aisle 7 users included an attachment in the meeting request, the invitees would not see the attachment nor could they accept the meeting request, and the organizer wouldn't know there was a problem.

Also, if users received a meeting request in Gmail using Google Apps that was sent using Outlook, they could see the date, time, and invitees, but they could not see notes written in the body of the invite by the organizer.

2. User revolt over the poor email and calendar functions

Serena Software moved to Google Apps in late 2008 for 1,100 users, intending to forsake Outlook and Office and fully use Gmail and Google Docs. That is until a small revolt from users and the legal team, which had issues with how confusing threading can be in Gmail.

"Once users lose confidence in a tool it's hard to get them back," says Ron Brister, Serena's director of IT.

Users were happy to abandon the Gmail interface for Outlook Connector, but Outlook Connector never worked well, says Brister. "Outlook Connector actually broke a number of times," he adds.

Like Aisle 7's Harris, Brister takes umbrage with how distribution lists are set up in Outlook Connector. "With Exchange when you send a group email it populates the To field with all members of that group," he says. "In Gmail and Outlook Connector all you see is the email address in the To field. You can't reply to one person or see who's on the list. It's just an http address. You have to reply to all or add people individually and reply that way."

Another source of aggravation for Brister was with Gmail's calendar invites. If you add an attachment to a meeting invite the attachment has to be a link to a Google Doc or it won't go through. The solution was to send follow up emails to the group with the attachment.

3. Downtime and slow response time too much to bear

In the one year that Aisle 7 was using Google Apps Harris experienced four instances of downtime lasting several hours each, he says, adding that the entire service didn't go down, but some important facets did. "Outlook would stop working but IMAP [the email retrieval protocol] would keep working. Or Active Sync protocols would not work but Outlook would work."

Aisle 7 went live on Microsoft's BPOS service in early June. It was initially interested in the $60-per-user-per-year version that gives full Exchange mailbox functionality with 25GB per user, but decided to invest in the $120-per-user-per-year version, which comes with full Exchange, SharePoint, Office Communicator, and Live Meeting.

Although more than twice the price of Google Apps Premier, Harris says BPOS will ultimately save the company money because Live Meeting will replace Cisco's WebEx for Web meetings and video conferencing. (WebEx has been costing Aisle 7 $600 per user per year.)

Serena says it experienced slow response times with Google Apps. Eventually one of Bristler's IT staffers discovered Serena's data was backed up in a Google data center in Berlin, Germany. "Mountain View is just up the street from our headquarters in Redwood City, so why are we in Berlin?" says Bristler. "We issued tickets asking why we're not in a local data center but we had trouble getting any feedback."

4. Customer support letdowns drive IT and users crazy
When asked about customer support for Goggle Apps, Aisle 7's Harris says: "They hardly offer any. Their policy is unless the service is down, you can't call them."

Bristler says he was nearly driven crazy by what he calls Google's "arrogant and complacent" view of customer service. For example, while most companies will send you slides for new product roadmaps for referencing and ongoing conversations, Google showed Serena its product roadmap via a WebEx online meeting and never actually sent roadmap items or commitments via email, says Bristler.

"I quickly discovered that nothing ever got achieved. Google just changed the quarter dates on these items, so it was always a sliding scale," he says. "I'd contact them and ask what's the status of such and such? And the Google sales manager would go off the record and say, 'I don't know, looks like it's been delayed.'"

Serena has a year left on its Google Apps contract, but is content to walk away because not much money will be lost, Bristler says. Although Microsoft is a relative newcomer to cloud services, Bristler says he feels comfortable with the BPOS service after a trip to Redmond to see the product roadmap and talk to Microsoft executives.

Serena currently has 500 users who are still using Gmail and Outlook Connector and about the same amount have moved to BPOS. Bristler anticipates an increase in user productivity, more confidence in Outlook, good customer support, and -- because he tied the BPOS contract in with a new enterprise agreement -- he foresees improved license management and compliance.

"At the very least, we are going back into familiar waters instead of being in deep water without a boat," he says.

Shane O'Neill is a senior writer at CIO.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter at twitter.com/CIOonline.

This story, "The trouble with going Google: Four reasons why I got out" was originally published by CIO.

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