Why I did, and why you should.
Over the last year or so, my resistance to the Borg-like inevitability of Google has proven futile, as I have moved more and more of my online life into Google applications. First, I started using Google Reader to manage and access my RSS feeds. I have always used Gmail as a spam filter and a means to access my Newsome.Org email online and via my iPhone. I have used Google Docs for podcast and church-related stuff.
But a couple of weeks ago, I went all in.
The cost of upgrading Microsoft Office, my pending move to Windows 7 via a new HP Computer that is frustratingly delayed, and the convenience of one-stop, online accessible apps got me thinking about moving me and my entire family to Google Apps. I took the plunge, and boy am I glad I did. There are some gaping holes in the Google Apps experience (more on that below), but there are also many elegant, useful features that I wasn’t aware of until I started to enjoy them.
Making the Move
I have used my Newsome.Org email address, on a dedicated server, for many, many years. I knew changing to a Gmail address was not an option. I wanted to keep my email address, as well as my massive set of personal folders and all the emails and data therein. So the only- and best- option was to move my Newsome.Org email services to Google Apps. Additionally, the move to Google Apps allows you to create a custom calendar site (e.g., calendar.yourdomain.com), a custom Google Docs site (e.g., docs.yourdomain.com), a shared Contacts site (e.g., contacts.yourdomain.com) and more.
Best of all, it’s free.
And, believe it or not, really easy.
Rather than recreate the wheel here, I’ll direct you to Mark O’Neill’s excellent walk-through. Changing the MX records for my domain was really easy via Network Solutions’ Domains Management page (don’t forget the period at the end of the hostnames ).
And unlike in years past, the changes propagate pretty fast, sometimes within minutes. After I had my mail page set up, I used a similar process to create CName records for my calendar, contacts, Google Docs, and even a short links (Google Short Links) and discussion board (Google Moderator) service.
Note than none of this affects your web site, as you do not modify the www, @none or *(all others) settings. Any host (e.g., www) other than the ones you specifically change as set forth above will continue to point to their current locations.
After maybe an hour’s work, I had dedicated, Newsome.Org-branded and web accessible email, calendar, documents and contacts pages for myself and my entire family.
The first thing I did was to create and upload a Newsome.Org Web Apps logo (see above and below) and customize a theme to match the Newsome.Org color scheme. One annoyance that Google should address is that your custom theme only applies to Gmail. There should be a way to cause your theme or custom color scheme to apply across all the various apps. The custom logo appears in all the Google Apps.
As a Firefox user, the next thing I did was install the most excellent Better Gmail add-on. Among many other indispensible features, this add-on lets you create labels- Gmail’s folder-substitute- in a nested tree structure, like folders and sub-folders. Since I want to keep my Outlook personal folders, this was a huge help. It also allows you to hide the Chat box and other screen wasting stuff. Then I used Google’s Gmail Uploader app to upload my 10 or so years worth of personal folders. I was worried that 10 years of emails would use most of my allocated 7 GB of storage, but happily it only took 472 MB! In a few minutes, I had recreated my personal folders, as well as the primary labels (e.g., folders) I use for email and efficiency management.
Note how the Archive Songs folder expands when I click on it. I also added POP access or forward rules (on those third party email apps, like Yahoo, that don’t allow free POP access) to capture my old AOL, Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo email. I have a filter set up to archive (e.g., move from my Inbox to the designated folder) that third party email as it arrived.
Next, I went to the Settings tab and added Quick Links (a way to create and save email searches, such as Unread or ones with certain attachments), the Google Calendar gadget, the Remember the Milk gadget (via the Add Any Gadget by URL feature under the Labs tab), and the Google Docs gadget. Now, I can access everything I need.
Note how elegantly the calendar is incorporated into the Gmail sidebar. I mentioned above that there are a lot of unexpected features. One great example is that when you get an email with an address in it, a link to a Google Map appears. Little things like that make the online world go around.
I also moved my calendar to Google Calendar. Via the Settings tab, I added some gadgets (World Clock and Jump to Date). I gave and got access to Raina’s calendar, and I added US holidays, weather and phases of the moon.
In order to create a centralized calendar, I synch my Office calendar with my Google Calendar via Google Calendar Synch.
Via the Settings tab, you can configure Google calendar to email you an agenda each morning and to notify you via text message and/or email prior to each calendar event. Again, this sort of small, but immensely helpful, feature is what makes these apps so compelling.
I uploaded my personal letterhead, a few forms I use a lot and some other key documents to my new, Newsome.Org-branded Google Docs page.
Google Docs is probably the weakest link in the application group, if only because word processing is so important in the business world. Tables and complex formatting in Word documents can be lost on the upload. And the addition of a tracked changes feature (or a close equivalent) should be job one for Google if it really wants businesses to use Google Apps. But, warts and all, Google Docs works well enough for me to dump Microsoft Office. I can’t believe I just typed that- but it’s true.
I don’t think Google Docs is the best choice for archiving old documents, pdfs, etc. (though implementation of the oft-rumored GDrive would be a welcome addition). For that I use my other favorite (and free) app- Dropbox (sign up here and we both get extra free space). I happily pay for the premium 50 GB Dropbox plan, which gives me plenty of space for document archives, etc.
As I have noted before, Google Contacts is a train wreck, that should be completely rewritten. In the meantime, however, consolidation trumps design, and I imported all of my contacts to Google Contacts.
At the end of the process, my entire family has easy, accessible and efficient email, calendar, documents and contacts, all consolidated and branded. It works really well.
But it could be better.
The individual apps still seem too much like individual applications tossed together, as opposed to an integrated suite of apps. The ability to customize the look and feel of the apps should apply uniformly throughout. Some of the apps, in particular Gmail, need to give us much more control over sidebar content, without the need for browser add-ons. I don’t want the Chat box, but I do want customized links to my Dropbox and other sites I use a lot.
Picasa should be integrated into Google Apps, and certainly Google Voice should be. I’d like to see Google Reader integrated as well. There should be a way to create personalized, private and integrated Google Groups. Google Docs needs either GDrive to launch, or the ability to integrate another online storage service into Google Docs for document storage and retrieval.
In sum, Google Apps aren’t perfect. But with a tweak here and there, they could be.