The Google Apps donation program provides organizational email, calendaring and document sharing as a free alternative to Microsoft Outlook. How do the two applications compare in the face of typical nonprofit needs?
Since Google introduced its Google Apps donation program several years ago, many organizations have adopted it as a replacement for the once-ubiquitous Microsoft Outlook. While not as powerful in every area as Outlook, Google Apps—offered free to most 501(c)(3) organizations—allows your entire staff to send and receive email at your organization’s domain (@yourorganization.org), and share online calendars, documents and much more.
With time, both systems have evolved in response to consumer demand—and as a result of competition with each other. How do their current iterations compare for typical nonprofit needs?
To find out, we looked at six different areas: Email Functionality, Calendaring, Contact Management, Folder Sharing, Remote and Mobile Access, and Setup and Support.
Defining the Systems
These competing systems are not strictly analogous, and the full Google Apps
suite covers most of the scope of two separate Microsoft applications, Outlook and Exchange.
Microsoft’s communications environment is based on Microsoft Exchange, a program installed on a server that offers email, calendar and basic contact management services, plus folder-sharing (known as “public folders” in geek-speak). Microsoft provides two ways for users to access these services on Microsoft Exchange. The first, Outlook Web Access (OWA), requires only a web browser, while the other, Microsoft Outlook, is a program installed on each user’s computer. Outlook and Exchange are closely intertwined, but distinct entities—when relevant, we’ll differentiate them by name.
On the other hand, Google’s communications environment, Google Apps, is run entirely on Google’s servers. Like Microsoft Exchange, it provides email, calendar and basic contact-management services, while Google Docs—another component of Google Apps—provides file-sharing.
This article compares Google Apps to the combination of Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, but other technical combinations are possible. For instance, you could run Microsoft Outlook on users’ desktops with Google Apps as a replacement for Exchange… but that’s another article entirely.
Outlook’s mail application is tried, true and familiar. But Google Apps’ web-based email system, Gmail
, is often regarded as superior in terms of ease of use. It offers some useful and substantially different features, such as the ability to label emails as part of multiple groups rather than requiring users to put them into a single folder. By default, Gmail groups together all emails in the same conversation, but this can be disabled. Outlook handles it the other way around, and lets users enable the same feature if they choose. For those who rely on searching their inbox, Gmail’s search is faster and often more accurate than Outlook’s.
The web-based nature of Gmail is both a strength and a weakness. Users can access email from any computer with an internet browser, but there can sometimes be a delay when displaying or sending emails while Gmail tries to reach the remote server. Each user gets 7 GB of free Gmail storage; with Outlook, storage is limited by how much you’re willing to spend on server space. Gmail also offers an excellent, free spam protection, which you must set up as a separate service with Outlook.
On the other hand, Gmail doesn’t offer all the advanced functionality Outlook does. It lacks the ability to set reminders on email items, or to customize the dictionary used for spell-check—which means it might flag your organization’s name or common acronyms as misspellings every time they’re used. And though there are lots of products and services to help back up Outlook, backing up Gmail data is relatively new territory. Help is out there, but it’s much more scarce.
Both Outlook and Google Calendar
let you schedule and show your time as “free” or “busy,” and book whole-day or recurring meetings. Google Calendar supports a natural language recognition for adding events—for instance, typing “Work Meeting Tuesday 8AM” will recognize that you want to create a “Work Meeting” for the next upcoming Tuesday at 8 a.m.
The core differences between the packages lie in their shared calendaring, however. For a while, Outlook’s was the standard-bearer, and over the years it’s been refined into a powerful meeting scheduling feature that allows you to easily schedule meetings with colleagues, book conference rooms, and see others’ availability via a stacked calendar view to identify free time slots among up to 30 invitees. Though Google Calendar has improved greatly in this area, and now includes features to allow you to find available slots and schedule them with participants and conference rooms, it is still playing catch-up with Outlook.
Both applications allow you to share staff calendars with others in the organization, but only Google Calendar lets you share them with other users outside your organization—as long as they’re also using Google Calendar.
Outlook’s close integration address book and email functions has long been a selling point. Just click on the name of a staff member in an email to see their phone number, address and more. If you store all your phone numbers in your Outlook address book, you can do the same for any contact.
Gmail’s contact functionality is more of a mixed bag. Its ability to automatically fill in an email address if you type in a contact’s name is superior to Outlook’s, but entering or viewing more-detailed contact information—including phone numbers—is considerably less convenient. If your staff relies on Outlook to maintain and search a detailed library of contacts, Gmail will certainly not replace that functionality for you. Both systems handle duplicate entries differently, too. In Outlook, merging duplicates requires either complex multi-step processes, or a third party tool. In Gmail, click the “Find Duplicates” button to list contacts with duplicate entries that you can choose to have Gmail merge for you.
Microsoft Exchange’s folder-sharing features have never been as compelling as its email and calendar functions. It facilitates a library of uploaded documents which can be slow to access and often redundant with a file server. Google Docs also offers the ability to access a shared set of documents, but the mental model behind the two applications is fairly different—while Outlook offers a library, Google Docs provides an index of shared documents that can also be opened for easy collaborative editing.
If allowing multiple people to update documents over time is important, Google Docs provides much smoother support. But managing permissions for shared Google Docs can be tedious, as the functionality is geared more around granting access to individuals than to groups. Documents can only be organized into folders by individual users, rather than by a central administrator, making it more difficult for users to navigate through a large set of shared documents.
Both applications go beyond just shared folders, though, and offer online collaborative document-editing—in fact, the systems are converging. Google Docs includes web-accessible word processing, spreadsheet, diagramming and presentation-building functionality analogous to Microsoft’s Office suite of applications. And with Office 2010, Microsoft has added the ability to share and collaborate online on Office documents. For more details on these features, see our article Comparing Online vs. Traditional Office Software
Remote and Mobile Access
Google Apps has a strong, inherent advantage for people working outside the office: because it’s entirely web-based, it can be viewed from any browser. Outlook offers components to support web-based email, but they need to be separately set up and maintained, and are not as smooth for end users.
If you’ve ever worked on email from an airplane, you know the value of offline access. Outlook users can easily write and respond to email without internet access—the application simply queues up messages and sends them automatically once a connection is available. As a web-based application, Gmail would normally be inaccessible without a connection—to address this problem, Google created Google Gears
, which establishes a copy of Gmail data on your computer and lets you work with the offline copy until you’re back online. (Be warned that Google Gears isn’t compatible with all Gmail configurations.)
Both Google Apps and Outlook can work more or less seamlessly with mobile devices like smart phones and tablet computers. Google Apps also gives the option of installing small programs, or apps, custom-built for a particular function—for example, rather than using your smart phone’s built in universal “calendar” feature to work with your Google Calendar, you would use an app built specifically around the functionality of Google Calendar.
Setup and Support
Outlook has a strong network of consultants who support it, and Microsoft offers clear-cut methods of obtaining tech support for it, but it’s not cheap to set up or support. With Exchange, you either run and maintain your own email servers or pay a third party (or Microsoft themselves) to do it for you. The first option means you’re responsible for the relatively complex installation and setup, ongoing maintenance, and important updates and patches. The second relieves you of technical complexity, but adds recurring expense.
Google Apps setup process, done through web forms, is somewhat less complex, and comes with tools to help migrate old emails from Outlook and other services. Google also provides free migration support for nonprofits. But if you're switching from Outlook to Google Apps, don't forget that some of the differences in the two interfaces are substantial enough that training may be necessary for some staff. Expect a learning curve. For instance, if you click delete on a message in Outlook, it will delete only that one message, but in Gmail it will delete the entire thread—a difference that can be subtle and annoying.
Because Google Apps is an outsourced service, you don’t need to worry about server maintenance and upgrades. However, your access to the applications is only as good as your internet connection, so make sure your Internet Service Provider is reliable. It’s also important to backup your data, even with Gmail. Google does its own backups, but problems do occur—it’s always the best practice to keep timely copies of your data.
It’s also possible that Google might someday stop supporting its philanthropic program to give away Google Apps. If that happens—or if you want a risk-free solution—Google Apps also offers a Premier Edition, for $50 per-year-per-person, with a 99.9 percent uptime guarantee that’s likely to provide better support and stability down the road. With Google's recent acquisition of Postini
, the Premier service also comes with Postini functionality for recovery of deleted emails and tools to set more strict rules on viewing and sending of emails.
Boiling It Down
What does it all mean? Both Outlook/Exchange and Gmail can be seen as parts of a complete IT ecosystem, and any decisions made about them should be made accordingly. If, for example, your organization is considering a switch to Gmail, check to see if your accounting system or Constituent Relationship Management system relies on Microsoft Exchange for messaging or calendar functionality. If such dependencies exist, you’ll need to factor in the cost to address them as part of your migration plan. Not all systems that work with Exchange can be made to work with Google Apps, so it pays to look before you leap.
Google Apps is a pretty compelling alternative, and certainly worth serious consideration if you’re starting from scratch with your infrastructure—particularly for small organizations. If you’re already using Outlook, the cost of the migration needs to be taken into account, but it’s worth weighing the pros and cons.
There is more risk inherent with Google Apps. It provides strong functionality for much less money, but you may encounter problems outside your ability to solve. If the applications become less reliable, you may have little recourse other than starting over with another service. While it's possible to create a more-bulletproof setup with Outlook, remember that it will also take a sizable investment in expertise, setup and maintenance. If you don’t invest the proper resources, it’s as likely—or more so—that Outlook will fail you.
Ultimately, as with any software choice, it comes down to your own analysis of costs and benefits. But it’s nice to have a solid choice in an area where choices have been historically limited.
For More Information
Google Apps for Nonprofits
Google’s page describing the various apps and options available to nonprofits and the details about them.
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