Many of our customers need a set of integrated tools to facilitate team collaboration on proposals and opportunity tracking. MS SharePoint and Google Apps are two obvious choices here, both with rich feature sets and backed by strong infrastructure. We recently prepared a few proposals based on the Google Apps platform, so I thought we might share some of our thoughts here to help you evaluate the strengths and capabilities of this particular platform. We were especially thinking about organizations who have staff operating all around the globe who may have occasional bandwidth challenges.
Google Apps and Google Sites
Google Apps is a comprehensive suite of enterprise collaboration technologies. Google Sites, a key component of Google Apps, provides a platform for building both intranet-style sites with documents, lists, and widgets, and more team-oriented collaboration workspaces. Google Apps is rapidly stealing market share from both Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft SharePoint and has nurtured an ecosystem of 3rd-party applications and services that integrate seamlessly with it. With the third-party OffiSync add-in, it is possible for users to have the same level of seamless integration with the Microsoft Office desktop application suite as they would enjoy with SharePoint, at a significantly lower cost.
Best Experience for Field Users (Google Content Delivery Network)
Google Apps / Sites provides a more bandwidth-optimized experience for field users than SharePoint. This is a major consideration for organizations that have international field office users with unreliable bandwidth and/or latency issues that cause frustration and slow work processes. Given the fact that there is relative feature parity between the two systems, performance in low-bandwidth environments becomes a big differentiator between these two solutions.
The difference in performance is based on two factors. First, the Google web-based interfaces use few graphics compared to the SharePoint implementations. Second, the Google Content Delivery Network provides a massively distributed global hosting infrastructure that physically moves data closer to specific users based on where they are consuming it.
Support for Both Top-Down (Managed) and Bottom-Up (Viral) Usage
A factor that makes Google Apps / Sites particularly attractive is that is supports both "top-down" and "bottom-up" usage scenarios. Content managers and corporate IT planners want the control and careful content-versioning (think policies and templates) that come with carefully organized lists of resources whose organization is the responsibility of designated staff ("top-down). Google Sites provides for this type of managed web site with widgets, lists, directories, and documents that are governed by designated users. However, site creation can also be delegated to individual users for ad-hoc project workspaces and more team-style collaboration efforts ("bottom-up"). Similarly, Google Docs allows users to set their own rules for sharing specific documents that they upload into their storage space, apart from the permissions that may be placed on more "governed" document libraries that may be part of the more "official" intranet.
We feel that this aspect of Google Apps directly encourages its adoption by distributed offices and/or projects. It provides the ability to share information from a "home office" to field locations in a structured fashion, while also giving project or division-level teams some flexible tools to get their projects accomplished. This aspect should be appealing not only to field-level users, but also to division managers who want tools that provide some relative autonomy and flexibility for implementing projects.
Lightweight Web Interfaces and Full Integration with MS Office Apps
Google Apps provides both lightweight browser-based interfaces to all functionality as well as providing native support for MS Office Apps via Google Apps OffiSync. Increasingly Google Apps' support for MS Office is becoming as seamless as that of SharePoint.
Lowest Cost of Licensing
Google Apps provides the lowest cost of licensing available for a platform that supports a SharePoint-equivalent feature set.
Baked-in Support for Integrated Authentication
Google Apps includes Google's OpenAuth / OpenID services, which provides a mechanism for synchronizing Google Apps account data with other home-grown and 3rd-party hosted systems. Google also offers a Google Apps Directory Sync tool which performs one-way synchronization of Active Directory account data into a Google Apps instance.
Integrated Authentication with MailChimp
Google Apps accounts can be used to authenticate users to a MailChimp account. This is consequential for organizations who need a tool like MailChimp for email campaign management.
Large Non-technical User Community
Google Apps has a large community of non-technical users who actively champion new features and provide user-community support.
Document Storage, Sharing, Versioning, Tagging
Google Apps provides two storage mechanisms for this. Shared-document storage with version history within a pre-defined hierarchy and central control is available through the Cabinet feature of Google Sites. Peer-to-Peer document sharing within the organization is available through Google Docs. Documents stored in either store can be embedded in Sites pages and both types support simultaneous co-authoring. OffiSync provides tight integration for both stores directly within Office applications and also supports the co-editing feature. Optionally, the Google Apps administrator can enable users to collaborate on documents with any Google account holder such as proposal collaborators or University partners. Google Docs recently added tagging support. This is an area where features are being added rapidly.
Blogging and Microblogging
The Announcement page type in Google Sites is very blog-like and are automatically syndicated with RSS. Google Apps accounts can also be used in conjunction with Blogger. Alternatively, some blogging engines such as WordPress support OpenID authentication and could, therefore, use Google Apps accounts to authorize access. Any RSS feed can be incorporated in to Google Sites.
Status updates and Twitter feeds can be integrated into Google Sites either via custom HTML or 3rd party Twitter widgets.
Custom Look / Feel
Google Sites provides a customizable interface within a pre-defined box model. Google provides an Enterprise Launch template specifically designed to facilitate this.
Views Based on User Permissions (i.e., different views depending on office location and user’s role in the organization)
Google Apps provides a hierarchical directory of permission delegation similar to Active Directory which allows modeling permissions based on organizational units. Permissions can be applied to Sites at different levels. For example, site authoring is separate from document attachment and commenting permission.
Links to Documents and URLs Relevant to Internal Work Processes
Google Sites has this capability via custom HTML, the List content type as well as integration with “Cabinet” document repositories and Google Docs.
Local and Global Announcements
Google Apps provides a personalized home page via the optional “Start Page” component. There are different ways to configure Start Page but one option is to integrate it with Sites which provides administrative control to the theme and which gadgets Irexers are allowed to incorporate into their personal home page.
Google Sites provides a Calendar widget which is driven by integration with Google Calendar.
CMS for Distributed Content Updating
The unit of authoring permission control is currently the Site container. Publishing control is managed by creating separate sites. Google has publically announced that it is working on page-level authoring permissions.
Ability to Track Usage
Google Sites provides integration with Google Analytics. Also, Site activity and Comments are published as RSS feeds.
Officially supported browsers:
- Internet Explorer 7.0+ (Windows)
- Internet Explorer 6.0 with Google Chrome Frame (Windows)
- Firefox 3.0+ (Windows, Mac, Linux)
- Safari 3.0+ (Mac)
- Google Chrome (Windows, Mac, Linux)
Mobile browser interface:
- iOS, Android, Blackberry, Nokia S60
Supported with down-level features:
- IE 5.5, 6.0 (Windows)
- Netscape 7.1+ (Windows, Mac, Linux)
- Mozilla 1.4+ (Windows, Mac, Linux)
- Firefox 0.8+ (Windows, Mac, Linux)
- Safari 1.3+ (Mac)
Some components will work in “basic HTML” mode
- IE 4.0+
- Netscape 4.07+
- Opera 6.03+
Functionality in Low-bandwidth Environments
Google Apps has a lightweight interface by default. Choosing optimized graphics when developing a Sites template is important here. Also, for some components such as Gmail there is a further super-low bandwidth version called “basic HTML”. OffiSync and Google Apps Sync integration with Office reduces bandwidth consumption because only data is exchanged rather than data + user interface. Consumption of news and alerts through asynchronous mechanisms like RSS can further improve the usability in a constrained bandwidth environment or on a mobile device.
Ease of Use
Many people are already familiar with Google Services for personal or viral corporate uses
Managing User Accounts
Corporate Google Apps logins can authenticate to virtually all Google services. A Google Apps login can also co-exist with a personal Google account login without conflict. An available advanced feature of Google Apps is to act as an OpenID and/or OAuth identity service. Since these are open standards that services can tap into over the Internet OpenID and/or OAuth could be leveraged to provide a single username and password to iKnow applications based on PeopleMatrix with a modest custom development as well as to Drupal.