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    The pros and cons of handing your company’s e-mail over to Google

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2008 First published in Business in Vancouver May 13-19, 2008; issue 968

    High Tech Office column 

    Grant Shellborn, chief technology officer with Port Coquitlam-based Vendtek Systems, had a problem.

    Vendtek, develops software for prepaid services such as mobile phones and long distance. Besides B.C., it has offices in Toronto, Beijing and Abu Dhabi. Like many other businesses, the company provided e-mail for its employees and struggled to keep it virus and spam free.

    Shellborn, however, found that accessing “our little hosted e-mail server” abroad was slow and sporadic; even registering a Chinese Internet address and setting up a parallel server there didn’t solve all the problems.
    For his personal domain, Shellborn had been testing a Google service. Google Apps allows the owners of Internet domain names to make use of Google’s e-mail, calendar and other products. He found that when access to Vendtek’s server was a problem, he was able to get these Google-based services.

    Enrolling Vendtek with Google Apps ( let Shellborn quickly set up and manage accounts for each employee and to create a customized webmail environment using Vendtek’s logo and domain name. Google hosts the service on its own servers, providing backup and spam filtering.

    Shellborn found the spam filtering more effective than his former in-house solution due to the large volume of messages passing through Google’s system. While he wishes for a way to “white-list” messages to clearly note that all messages from a given sender were not spam, overall he considers the filtering “fantastic.”

    The Google Apps e-mail inherits both the strengths and the quirks of Google’s Gmail service. Each user gets a lot of mail storage, and searching for names or content in even large in-boxes is quick and easy. Search is Google’s strength, after all. But Shellborn reported that some users were initially confused by the lack of customizable mail folders. If a user prefers a more traditional interface, it’s possible to use it with standard e-mail software like Microsoft Outlook or Apple Mail and to synchronize mail, calendars and contacts with Blackberries and other mobile phones. Shellborn now prefers the webmail interface, though it’s changed the way he works with e-mail.
    “I don’t file as much as I used to. Now I just search.”

    Signing on with Google Apps provides more than e-mail. Vendtek users also get calendaring, which hadn’t been provided on their old in-house server. Some users are making use of Google Docs: online word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software. Shellborn uses these during meetings, letting online participants bring up minutes, charts and tables and see edits in real time. With Google Docs, he’s also posting documents for easy sharing.

    He notes that to use these applications, you have to be online, but Google is promising off-line functionality. Shellborn is not proposing that Vendtek completely replace Microsoft Office with Google Docs, but he says that the company now looks to see whether it really needs to buy licences of Office for new hires.

    Google Apps comes in two flavours: a free standard edition and a premier edition, which costs $50 per user per year and features 25 gigabytes of mail storage, 24/7 phone support, and other services.

    Vendtek opted for the standard edition. Shellborn considers the five to six gigabytes of storage more than adequate for his users’ needs. They get ads with the free service’s webmail interface, but as in Google search pages, the ads are relatively unobtrusive.

    And because the ads match up with the content of the e-mail messages, Shellborn finds them more useful than annoying. (If e-mail is accessed using Outlook or other e-mail software, there are no ads, and ads are not attached to outgoing messages.)

    According to Shellborn, his users are happy with the change. And by no longer having to manage an e-mail server, he’s got more time to “do the real work.” •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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