Google would like you to believe that its hosted email and office productivity tools are just as good as Microsoft's. While that's probably not the case yet, Google Apps is a valid and inexpensive alternative to Microsoft Office for many types of customers. Here's what you need to know about Google Apps.

Key components

Google Apps includes all the major applications businesses need to collaborate: email, calendaring, a word processor and several other web tools.

Gmail for business users provides 25GB of storage, spam blocking, and a 99.9% uptime guarantee. Google Calendar includes the ability to compare multiple calendars to determine optimal meeting times, integration with email and other calendar apps, shared project calendars, access on mobile devices and ability to publish calendars on websites. Google Docs provides word processing, spreadsheets and presentation creating tools, all hosted online, with the ability for administrators to manage file sharing permissions. Google Postini provides hosted email security and archiving for Gmail.

More Apps include Google Groups, for mailing lists, content sharing and searchable archives, Google Sites, a website creation tool for people who lack knowledge of coding and HTML and Google Video, a private video sharing service for internal communications such as corporate announcements.

What it costs

The business price is $50 per user per year; individual users can access Gmail, Google Docs and other Apps for free. Postini services cost extra, ranging from $12 to $45 per user per year.

How many businesses are using it: More than 2 million companies are using Google Apps, including big organisations such as, the semiconductor firm Avago Technologies and the City of Los Angeles, according to Google. But the adoption numbers aren't as impressive when looking at the entire business world. An IDC survey in July 2009 shows that nearly 97% of businesses were using Microsoft Office, and 77% were using only Microsoft Office. Nearly 20% reported extensive use of Google Docs, but not at the exclusion of other tools.

A separate survey by Information Technology Intelligence Corp (ITIC) in January 2010 indicates that 4% of businesses are adopting Google Apps as their primary email and productivity software, and that Google's popularity is primarily among the smallest businesses. But Google Apps adoption still lags behind OpenOffice and IBM's Lotus Notes, let alone Microsoft, according to ITIC. The ITIC survey was based on responses from nearly 800 IT managers worldwide and the IDC survey on 262 respondents.

What's good about it: The most commonly cited advantage of Google Apps is the low cost, both in terms of the list price and the ability to reduce internal IT costs for help desk support and hardware in the data center. Although some potential customers worry about Google's security, businesses that don't have their own disaster-recovery processes and systems may feel comforted by the fact that with Google their data is stored offsite and in highly redundant data centers.

While Google customers recognise that Apps doesn't offer everything that Microsoft Office does, proponents argue that the online productivity tools are good enough for most users.

Google "is a credible replacement for in-house versions of Lotus Notes email or Microsoft Exchange if an enterprise wants to stop paying for in-house personnel and server and client access licences," Burton Group analyst Guy Creese writes in a recent in-depth report on Google Apps.

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