Google Apps: The Good, The Bad and The Evil

Google Apps is by far the best product/service that Google has delivered after its universally accepted search service (plus Adwords and Adsense). Google Apps is a blessing for any small business for sure and possibly for medium sized enterprises, schools and other organizations as well. At a high-level it is Google’s attempt at replacing the conventional intranet/shared server and email with a consolidated hosted alternative. It gives you access to group calendars, Docs & Spreadsheets, a customizable login page, URL etc. In case you are considering Google Apps or are an existing customer, here are a few tips based on my experiences.

The Good

Email Management: The biggest value of Google Apps is its complete handling of email. Of late managing email for small to medium sized businesses has become a major effort. With increasing amount of spam, and endless viruses, maintaining and managing a mail server is a significant ongoing undertaking. Google Apps does a terrific job of handling these tasks and automating its management.

Ideal for Gmail lovers: If you like the GMAIL interface, then Google Apps becomes all the more easier. However, if you don’t like the gmail interface you could easily POP the email to your mail program.

Powerful Filtering:
There are useful email filtering capabilities that lets you sort and automatically move incoming mail to appropriate labels. The best part is that these are easy to setup (assuming you like the Gmail interface with labels etc.).

Simplified, UI driven: Common email management tasks (which requires most people to be extra nice to their often temperamental IT support staff) such as creating and deleting aliases, accounts, forwarding emails, setting up vacation notices etc are extremely easy through a fairly easy to use UI.

The Bad

Overly Aggressive Spam: The Spam filtering in Google Apps tends to get overly aggressive with the result that emails that don’t belong in spam often end up there. It is a good idea to search through spam before deleting it.

Elusive Support Email: The worst and most frustrating part about the free Google Apps is that it incredibly hard to send Google a support request! It takes you quite a while to find a page where you can send them a support email. As for a support phone number, don’t even think about it. At every instance you are pointed to some annoying discussion page or some online FAQ where you can never really find what you want.

Paid vs. Free: Google Apps has both a paid service (Premium) and a free service. The paid service comes with support and other features (you can turn off ads, archive old emails etc), while with the free service your on your own (or at the mercy of Google as I realized later). I was using the free service for several months and was perfectly happy with it until one fine day Google decided to turn off access to one of our mail boxes! On login the following message was displayed:

Sorry… account maintenance underway

We’re currently performing some unexpected maintenance on your account. While we can’t predict exactly how long it will take, we’re working as quickly as we can to restore access to your email–apologies for the inconvenience.

If you have questions, please contact us at gmail-maintenance@google.com.

We sent several emails and received no response whatsoever. All other email boxes worked just fine except this particular one. I suspect that we were receiving too much spam on this account for reasons unknown to us and beyond our control. To make matter worse emails sent to the mailbox received a warning message as follows:

Technical details of temporary failure:

DISABLED_USER: Account temporarily disabled

It would have been more appropriate and less alarming to recipients if the message said something to the effect that the account was undergoing maintenance, we apologize etc.

Thankfully, switching back to our original mail server configuration (by passing Google Apps) to start receiving email helped us ride the crisis until Google re-started access to the mailbox after 6+ days.

The Evil

Reality: We have used Google Apps for close to year now and believe that Google Apps is a terrific service that I would highly recommend to anyone, especially those who are frustrated by perennial email problems. However, the reality though is that you run the risk of Google arbitrarily changing the rules of engagement, turning off access, not responding to your email and leaving you completely in the dark (among other things!), especially if you are using the free service. Email is an essential, mission-critical service and one can’t afford to run a business or an organization without a fail safe arrangement. So here are some tips in case you are considering a switch to Google Apps.

  • Have a Plan B: If you chose to switch to Google Apps be sure you have a Plan B. i.e., have your email server setup and ready to temporarily switch back in the event of a crisis.
  • Reduce spam: Once you sign up for Google Apps there is a setting to accept all emails that come to your domain and then move the ones that don’t belong, to spam. The other option is to reject/delete emails right away those that don’t match any addresses on your domain. Choosing the later option dramatically reduces spam.
  • Sign-up for the Paid Service: You get what you pay for. There is no free lunch. Both of these are apt descriptions when it comes to Google Apps. Sign up for the paid service (so you get support via email, phone and chat).

Google offers you a great service for free and then enslaves you to the service and then makes life hard for you until you subscribe! Google critics could easily argue that with Google Apps, Google gets evil, contrary to its “Do no evil” philosophy. Nevertheless, a great product/service.

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