Why Google have it right

When Google first opened their doors in 1998, it was a very different company to the one we see today. The founders even favoured ad-free search engines. How times have changed! Google is essentially an advertising-funded company, but they’ve also spotted market trends (or invented them, or been very lucky – you decide) which map a clear path to a future cloud-based environment.

I use Google Apps, the version of the Google suite of email, calendar, document sharing and more which allows Google to take over parts of your domain. Email (SMTP) and IM (XMPP) protocols don’t go to WESH (my web hosting Service Provider) but instead DNS magic means that email and IM go straight into Google – into gmail and Google Talk. This is great for me, as with WESH I get a rather tiddly 50Mb of storage for but web content and email, whereas Google offer 7Gb for free and more for a small fee. And as WESH don’t offer an IM service, I can use Google Talk to publish a mike@mike-barnes.co.uk address for both email and IM instead of having a different, rather arbitrary address for IM (via Google Talk, Jabber, or any of a million other options out there).

Google Apps has some limitations – on Android, in particular, some things just don’t seem to work. Yet? And when I migrated from a non-Apps account to an Apps account it was painful, to say the least. I even had to hard-reset my Android phone, and lost a couple of purchases that I’d made in the store using my old account. Teething troubles, perhaps, but evidence that a lot of this technology is still work in progress.

Google Apps is supposed to be a win/win for you (and me) and Google. They get to search all your emails and IMs, documents, or anything else you host with them. Google’s informal mantra is “don’t be evil”, but it’s up to you to decide whether you find this creepy, worrying, or just one of those things. Their privacy policy makes it (kinda) clear what they use this information for – best read it. For myself, I don’t have a problem with Google seeing all my email content – if they were sitting around reading it I’d close the account immediately, but we’re talking about machines looking for keywords here. It’s all about searching – finding information to report, and finding new ways to tailor search results specifically for you. Imagine a world without annoying adverts for ambulance-chasing lawyers – the kind of technology, and the kind of deep knowledge of individuals, that Google is delving into could make that a reality. Unless you like seeing those adverts – in which case, be absolutely sure that you will!

Google Apps email is gmail by another name, and the calendar, contacts, IM and docs seem identical as far as I can see. They all work really well, offering an on-line option for all these services but with the ability to work with offline software too. So I use Thunderbird email client to read my email via IMAP, all changes are synced automatically and so I get exactly the same view on my Android phone’s email (gmail) client. The contacts sync in the same way. Thunderbird has a plug-in for calendar, which can sync to the Google Apps calendar. For IM, almost every client offers XMPP support – I use Pidgin on Ubuntu Linux.

What you end up with is a poor-man’s Microsoft Exchange / Outlook combo alternative. It’s not the same, but it does work well. Google Buzz and Google Wave are developing technologies which will take a bit of getting used to but promise to extend the functionality of this solution way beyond an office-suite replacement. It’s still early days, but the path towards a proper collaboration environment is clear. For now, Google are lacking many enterprise-type features such as virtual workspaces – Google Docs is a bit of a poor cousin even to Livelink, offering online editing tools which are visually OK but swiftly become hard to love. For instance cut and paste support seems to depend on your browser – and didn’t work on at least one of my machines. Document editing without cut and paste?? Yikes. I’ve given up on it for now, and am using Ubuntu One which sync local files to the Ubuntu cloud (2Gb free). It’s a bit old-world perhaps, but in case Google haven’t noticed the world is not yet always connected. Working offline is still very important.

So there will be more from me on Google, Google Apps, and Android in future posts. Android 2.1 will hopefully arrive on my phone soon and I’ll provide an insight into living with Android.

Until then… enjoy reading Google’s privacy statements!

About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

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