Good News for (at Least a Few) Google Apps Users


I’ve been a Google Apps user for a long time.  Though I am generally satisfied with the email and light word processing features, I have also been highly critical of what I see as some gaping deficiencies in the experience.  In general, these deficiencies are:

1. The fact that the suite of apps looks tossed together, both in design and function.  Some of the apps, like Gmail, are beautiful.  Others, like Sites and Moderator (whatever that is), are so bad I can’t even suggest how to fix them.

2. The fact that few of the new apps and features that Google releases find their way into Google Apps.

Finally, it looks like there is hope.  Wired tells us today that Google has invited “select users” to test a version of Google Apps that includes all the features that regular Google users have:

[Google’s] now asking some Apps users — known as Trusted Testers — to help test out the infrastructure, according to an e-mail seen by
Good.  I hope this represents a trend that will ultimately make all these features available in Google Apps.  For everyone.

Is Google’s Haphazard App Development Path a Master Plan or an Epic Fail?

image Much of the time, it seems to me like Google develops apps the way a squirrel hides nuts.  Toss as many of ‘em out there as quickly as possible, knowing that you’ll come across some of them later, even as others are forgotten or lost.  Maybe this is a brilliant master plan, or maybe it’s a sign of something else.

Like a lack of focus?  Or a waste of resources?

As we all know, I started moving into the cloud last year.  As a part of that, I attempted to abandon Microsoft Office, and set myself and my family members up with a Google Apps account.  It wasn’t really a level playing field, though, since I still had Office on my downtown office computer and my work laptop.  It took about a week for my entire family to mutiny in the name of getting Office back.  I used Google Docs for my personal word processing, which involves mostly letters and some light spreadsheet work.  Even that was pretty frustrating.

But once school started and my kids had to actually create documents, the mutiny was in full force.  So I capitulated and reinstalled Office, less Outlook.  We all agree that Gmail is an acceptable (to them) and preferable (to me, because of the cloud-based location) email client.  Though, it’s worth pointing out, only Better Gmail 2 makes it so.  Without that fantastic add-on, even the Gmail interface is needlessly cluttered and you can’t collapse your tags (which I use as folder-equivalents).

While Gmail, at least when hacked right, is great, for anything other than your great grandmother’s level of word processing, Google Docs are completely and totally unworkable.  This is really surprising to me, since Google Apps has a Premium version, and at least up to now had the very real potential to do the two things Google loves most: make some money and hurt Microsoft.  But for some utterly insane reason, Google continues to let Google Apps lie in a fallow, disjointed state, preferring to devote its resources to adding needless social networking features.  None of which will ever make Google Apps the robust Microsoft killer it could be.

No one, and I mean no one, can tell me this makes any business sense.

So why is it happening?

At the same resource wasting time, Google continues to toss more nuts into the ground: Latitude (remember all the initial hoopla about this now forgotten location sharing app?), file sharing on iGoogle and something called Orkut (where the hell is the real GDrive?), Wave (which is about as happening as FriendFeed these days), Buzz (the buzz surrounding which had the half-life of Jesse James’ relationships), Google Reader (a great app that is being ignored in favor of the momentum play du jour).  The list goes on and on.

Seriously.  Does someone at Google HQ look out the window, see someone talking on a phone and and say “Hey, that reminds me.  Don’t we have an app called Google Voice, or something like that?  Let’s spend 10 minutes on that before we get back to this Twitter clone we’re working night and day on.”

The press, as a whole, doesn’t help.  Some combination of clue deficiency, Google lust and the need to say stupid things so people like me will click over to yell at them makes the press write articles that allow Google to pretend that all of this is going swimmingly.  When it’s so clearly not.

For example, I was astounded today to see an article at C|Net speculating, yet again, that maybe we don’t need Office anymore, because we can bathe in the wonder of Google Docs.  Then I noticed that this dude is a Linux guy.  I suppose when you think Linux is preferable to Windows 7, you probably think Google Docs is the greatest thing since the keyboard.  Still, this might be the single most blatantly incorrect sentence ever strung together:

And at some point, CIOs are going to realize that the vast majority of their employees don’t spend any time mucking around with pivot tables or drafting documents. At most, people use Outlook, and buying an entire Office license to get e-mail feels like overkill.

WHAT?  Are you kidding me?  People in companies all over America spend all day and all night doing exactly that.  And then sending those documents, with tracked changes (which of course Google Docs can’t do), to other people who take their turn.  Over and over.  Even the email part is wrong, as Outlook is the most dispensable part of Office.

To even suggest that corporate America could use Google Docs is to demonstrate that you’ve never spent a day working in corporate America.  It’s this problem that Google should be focused on.  Because the right cloud based application could serve corporate America.  Google Docs, as it currently exists, is about as far away from being that app as possible.

Paul Thurrott, taking a page out of my sermon book, gets it right:

I don’t believe that Google’s free tools–Google Docs, part of Google Apps–represent a technical or financial challenge to Office at all….  Microsoft Office is vastly superior to every single office productivity solution there is.

As Paul points out, about the only thing Google Apps can do for corporate America is serve as a stalking horse.

Open Office is a mostly workable solution, and does make Google Apps look pitiful by comparison, but then again so does Zoho.  For that matter so does a piece of chalk lying on a sidewalk.

Microsoft could own the cloud based office productivity space if it wanted to.  It just doesn’t want to yet- while the cloud is still forming.  We’re seeing the price of Office fall over time, clearly as a result of that stalking horse.  Perhaps Microsoft will eventually take flight (or be forced) into the cloud.

Until then, we will have to search for other options.

But Google Apps is not one.  It’s just another lost nut waiting to be rediscovered.

Five Indisputable Tech Facts for 2010

I stayed out of the annual New Year’s prediction derby, because my stock buying history proves without a doubt that I have no predictive abilities.

image But I will give you five indisputable tech facts for 2010.

First, if the $1000 price point rumors are accurate, the much discussed Apple Tablet will be more sleep inducing than world changing.  Few people in the real world want a tablet computer to begin with.  Almost no one in the real world will pay more for a tablet than they plan to pay for their next desktop.  Oh, sure, the Appleheads will gush over it for a day or two, and then it will fade into the same cloud of communal apathy that swallowed the Palm Pre and a horde of earlier supposed world changers.  I would love a nice, iPhone looking and acting tablet.  But not as much as I’d love $1000 in my pocket.

Second, Google Docs are not even remotely close to being a legitimate alternative to Microsoft Office for document-intensive users.  Anyone who tells you different has never had a real job.  Look, I tried.  Really hard.  The formatting incompatibilities, printing limitations, inability to create useful document comparisons and a slew of other glaring deficiencies made me run back to Office, with my tail between my legs and my credit card in my hand.  Microsoft isn’t going to commit corporate suicide by giving us a reasonably featured, free online Office suite.  The only chance we have of getting a half-way usable online word processing suite is via Open Office.  Unlike Google Docs, Open Office is a legitimate Office alternative.  I don’t know if there are plans for an online version, but the right people could create something really useful with Open Office supplying the underlying applications.  But Google Docs?  Honestly, they just piss me off.  Worrying about collaboration is a complete waste of time when the tool you’re collaborating with sucks so bad.

Third, blogging, sadly, is dead.  Facebook has all the non-nerds guzzling the Kool-Aid (in between shifts of Farmville), and has become the new AOL.  Twitter has the attention-challenged (as well as the spammers).  In our ADD culture there’s just no place for depth.  Which makes newspapers, record albums, and blogs dead media.  The momentum may swing back the other way at some point- and I certainly hope it does.  But for now, anything that has more meat than a chicken foot is out of favor with the masses.  Sure, some of us try to continue blogging, but can you name even one person who’s really into it?  I used to wonder if I could blog my way into the Technorati Top 100 (not that there are many real blogs on that list anymore).  Now I wonder if I’ll even finish this post.

Fourth, if Microsoft wants to finally get something right on the internet, all it has to do is put OneNote online, and make it free.  It is by far the best information aggregator on the market.  Only the cost and, more importantly, the lack of an easy way to synch and access your information stands between OneNote and complete dominance of the space.  Sadly, Microsoft probably won’t do this, since it is such a good idea.  But if it did, I’d dump Evernote in a heartbeat.  That would teach them to ignore my repeated requests for folders.

Fifth, as the Twitter hysteria begins to fade, we are witnessing the end of one of the worst things to ever happen to business: the idea that free is a business model.  It’s not, and it never has been.  It’s just smoke and mirrors used to puff up valuations in the hope that some greater fool will wander by and start throwing money at you.  Sure, some free things have always been a part of good business plans.  Like samples or maybe even “lite” versions of something you want to entice people to buy.  If all you have is free, you’re a charity not a business.  You make money by selling something, and you can’t sell something that has no perception of value.  There’s no better way to create a perception of no value than to give all of your goods away.  The death of this non-business model is a very good thing that will eventually lead to real innovation.  When the barriers to entry are higher, the quality of the goods that make it to market is higher.

That’s my five.  What are your indisputable tech facts for 2010?

Going All In With Google Apps


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.,, a custom Google Docs site (e.g.,, a shared Contacts site (e.g., 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.


Online Utopia?

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.

Google Sites is a really crappy, impossible to use, app.  Google Moderator is only marginally better.

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.

Google Office: Fear Trumps Free in Corporate America

Rick Mahn has an interesting post on the whole Google Office thing we’ve been talking about.

I think he’s spot on that there will be a market for Google’s office productivity applications based on cost alone. It’s hard to beat free, and if I weren’t in a profession largely based on pushing paper, I’d certainly consider using a cheaper office suite. I haven’t used Writely, but Steve Rubel likes it, so it must be a good product.

But there are a couple of other issues lurking out there.

First of all, I don’t think it’s as much of a cost thing as it is a browser based online thing. If you only want close to free, there’s StarOffice. If you want totally free, there’s OpenOffice.

If you want online, there’s Google now. More players are on the horizon.

Sure, there is a slight movement towards online web applications, lead by email, online music services and, most importantly, online banking. I say most importantly because the banking industry has spent millions and made progress convincing people that they can bank online without getting robbed blind.

riskaversionBut here’s the thing. Until corporate America decides that it can create and perhaps store all of its important and confidential documents online, online word processing and storage isn’t happening. Not in the business world.

Add to that the strict confidentiality requirements imposed on doctors, lawyers and bankers and the market continues to shrink.

So while Google will get some mindshare because it is Google, I don’t see many businesses moving all of their document management online. For security reasons. Because of inertia by risk aversion. And because they would have to retrain all of their people.

That’s not to say this won’t hurt Microsoft, because the home and educational user base is important to Microsoft. Should some computer maker start giving Google Office as a cheaper alternative to Office or Works, then Microsoft will feel a little pain. Remember the Dell deal to put Google bloatware on new Dells?

It may even be forced to scrap the faux Office Live and do a real one.

This deal is going nowhere as far as business users go. But it will sting Microsoft a little bit.

And maybe that was the point all along.

Writely or Wrongly, Google Takes Aim at Microsoft

Om Malik reports on rumors that Google is in talks to buy Writely, an online word processor. Acquisition of Writely would give Google another arrow in its quiver of applications aimed directly at Microsoft Office.

Om has a chart in his post that compares the prospective office productivity offerings of both Microsoft and Google. The only one that matters is the bottom row which is the price:

Microsoft $350-$499……Google Free.

I know Google has a ton of money. I know they have to find a way to justify the still lofty stock price. I know they are building internets, giving ad-serving computers to the economically disadvantaged, and tossing $90 million of chump change at a click-fraud lawsuit.

But what I really, really, really want to know is how Google intends to make money off of this stuff.

Because I’ll tell you what. If the only revenue stream they can come up with is selling more ads, there’s a world of hurt waiting out there somewhere. The online ad game is cyclical, fickle and cannot support the billions of dollars of capital investments that Google is making.

The whole free web application business is becoming a dangerous house of cards based on a faulty premise- the continued flow of online ad sales.

So I’d like to know exactly how Google expects to make money off of this stuff. That’s all that matters.

Traffic without revenue is meaningless.