Google Apps sync for Outlook gets poor reviews

Some Google Apps administrators have given up on it due to bugs and missing features

Nine months after Google daringly launched a sync tool to link its hosted Apps collaboration and communication suite with arch-rival Microsoft's Outlook PC software, results have been poor.

Google states that most organizations using the Outlook sync tool are very satisfied. However, IDG News Service, over the course of several weeks and even after enlisting the help of Google's public relations department, couldn't find one Google Apps administrator whose employer isn't a Google Apps reseller or integrator willing to speak favorably about the Outlook sync tool.

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Google maintains the product has accomplished its goal: to offer a viable option for organizations to continue using Outlook as a user front end after they switch communication servers from Microsoft Exchange to Google Apps. "Since Google added this plug in, demand for Google Apps has been increasing steadily," said Jim McNelis, CEO of Google Apps reseller and integrator Dito, which has implemented Google Apps for about 200 clients.

However, the story has played out differently for those unhappy IT managers for whom the Outlook plug-in, introduced with much fanfare in June 2009, has fallen short and caused their end-users to complain loudly.

In Oregon, Jake Harris, IT manager at Aisle7, regrets that he campaigned heavily in favor of his company switching from Exchange to Google Apps. He blames the Outlook sync tool. "If we weren't using Outlook, I think we'd be very happy customers, but the Outlook Sync [tool] is simply a debacle, and will probably result in us moving to a hosted Exchange solution," Harris said.

Aisle7, a provider of online and offline marketing services for retailers' wellness products, has had chronic problems with Outlook since moving its 41 users from an on-premise Exchange server to Google Apps last summer.

The problems have been caused by Google-acknowledged bugs, the inconvenience of missing Outlook features when used with Gmail, and random technical hiccups. "I'm tired of the headaches, and I'm quite excited about going back to something that's tried and true," said Harris, who is leaning toward replacing Apps with Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Suite, which includes hosted Exchange, SharePoint, and other Microsoft collaboration software.

There are other Google Apps administrators who are their wits' end regarding the Google Apps sync tool for Outlook, as evidenced by several threads in the official Apps Help discussion forum, such as the one labeled "Is Google Apps Sync Enterprise Ready?"

Google declined to give the size of the tool's installed base. Burton Group analyst Bill Pray suspects its adoption isn't very broad. Instead the tool is used tactically by IT departments to temporarily appease Outlook diehards and prevent them from torpedoing their company's move to Apps, before shepherding them over to the Gmail interface, he said.

As cloud computing gains adepts in enterprises, leading to adoption of hosted suites like Google Apps, more and more CIOs are rethinking having "fat client" applications like Outlook on PCs, Pray said. "As an enterprise, I wouldn't strategically bet on the sync tool and Outlook as a client with the Gmail back end because you introduce a lot of challenges in your environment. It's better to go with the Gmail Webmail client," he said.

While that's the ideal scenario, end-users in enterprises remain very emotionally attached to Outlook. In a study published in December, Osterman Research found that only 16 percent of midsize and large organizations would probably or definitely consider switching to a new messaging back end if they had to switch desktop client software. However, 52 percent would probably or definitely consider switching if they could keep the existing desktop client, in most cases Outlook, Osterman Research found.

"I believe that Google is smart to focus on letting users keep Outlook as their front end for Google Apps. This minimizes training costs, end-user disruptions and the like, since users tend to be sensitive to changes in their email experience," Michael Osterman, Osterman Research's president, said via e-mail.

Burton's Pray has seen Outlook sync tools come and go over the years from a variety of vendors, usually with less than stellar results, so enterprises need to adjust their expectations. "I have yet to see an Outlook connector that works well and is successful," he said. "The main reason is that you can never truly put in the time and effort to build the connector to be robust enough to support the exact user experience you get with Outlook and Exchange."

"You should pilot this in your organization with your users, especially power users, to get a feel for how well it's going to work, and understand there will be gaps in functionality," Pray added.

Indeed, while Google argues that its tool replicates most of the Outlook-Exchange functionality end users need, like basic e-mail, calendar and contacts, there are many features and capabilities that it doesn't, including synchronizing tasks. Google offers a nifty chart outlining what its sync tool does and doesn't replicate in this page.

"It supports a very small subset of what Outlook can do," said Tom Rizzo, a senior director in the Microsoft Online Services team. In particular, the Google tool doesn't scratch the surface of most new features in Outlook 2010, which like the other components of Office 2010 are much more "socially aware," thanks to elements like the new Outlook Social Connector, and let users collaborate in cloud computing environments, according to Rizzo.

The tool has also been affected by several pesky bugs, including a recent one that prevented it from downloading some email messages from Gmail to Outlook, forcing affected users to regularly check their Gmail inbox.

Overall, Benjamin Congdon, a Google Apps systems architect and consultant in Ontario, likes the Outlook sync tool but suggests Google stamp out the bugs faster. "If they can keep up with the 'known issues' as quickly as they become known, that will greatly assist in building a better relationship with the Apps admins out there," he said.

Google and its Apps resellers and integrators are the first to say that the ideal scenario for Google Apps' deployments is to use the Gmail front end. Blair Collins, founder of InterlockIT.com, a Google Apps reseller and integrator in Toronto, generally tries to steer clients to use the Gmail Web interface, arguing that it will work better and save them money.

"If you're going to stick with Outlook for the long term, it's going to greatly reduce the return on investment and cost-savings of moving to Google Apps," Collins said. In his experience, sometimes problems lie neither with the Outlook sync tool nor with Apps, but rather with Outlook software that organizations have failed to upgrade and patch, he said.

Collins has also seen the Outlook sync tool sputter due to slow Internet connections, a common scenario in small businesses. "When you install Apps Sync for Outlook, it's very demanding on that Internet line because the server is now in the cloud, not sitting in your office any more," he said.

"There is so much more in Gmail that accelerates your business and makes it to much easier to consume and respond to email, that we prefer people use Gmail Web interface," Google's Vander Mey said.

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