I have been using this service for about a year now to host my personal e-mail account. When I first signed up, I had a gmail.com address and, when the facility became available, moved my domain's email to the service so that I could benefit from their brilliant application and maintain my own domain identity. For me, the service is great: it's fast, accessible anywhere (including my mobile phone) and, through their adoption of open standards, I am able to access its combined calendar service almost anywhere, except my mobile phone, for which I have to pay a fee to GooSync in order to be kept up-to-date. So from a consumer perspective, I can't ask for much except for Google to complete their offering and provide a mechanism with which to access calendar data from mobile devices without the use of a third party.
Recently, GMail launched a corporate version of their service which aims to provide businesses with a software-as-a-service delivery of mail, calendar, office and collaboration apps centred around web-based access with additional tools like Microsoft Outlook integration by recognising that, even with it's faults, it's a great application for corporate email and, backed by Microsoft's support is the most heavily adopted application in business for provision of mail services.
However, Google's corporate mail offering falls flat. I recently tried to migrate one of my clients to use the service and found a number of problems which have made me hesitant to use this service. So much so that for my own business, Redwire, I found an alternative provider with whom we now have a reseller account and to whom we intend to migrate all of our existing mail provision to, over time. I'd like to explain my choice of moving away from Google here because the issues it highlights are so important; there are a few issues, as follows.
The client I chose to test GMail with is Urch Publishing, a small publisher of market research in the healthcare field. We share an office with this company so I see their MD, Edwin, on a daily basis and he's always eager to try out new technological ways to improve his business and allow him to work more efficiently. So the two of us sat down and signed him up to GMail's business offering. Switching over his mail servers and activating his account was very simple and he became familiar with the system fairly quickly. There were a number of problems though:
- Advertising: he paid for Google Mail upfront, for a year, but still had to manually switch off the contextual advertising that is normally part of the webmail interface. This seems odd to me: one of the things that Google tells people is a benefit of paying for the service is to remove the advertising. Doing so was easy enough - there's a setting in the account preferences which allows you to do this. As a corporate customer, though, I feel that as soon as you're paying for a service, Google should switch off their advertising on your behalf as a thank-you for your investment and notify you of this by email, together with instructions on how to re-enable the adverts should you wish to do so, so that you remain informed as a customer.
- Migration: this is where Edwin and I really felt let down. Edwin has a huge amount of email in Outlook: about 6GB of data in all, so we downloaded Google's migration tool and decided to give it a try. We followed the instructions provided and started the migration. From this point on, we had absolutely no feedback from the tool, so had no way to know how far it was progressing except to check Edwin's email to monitor progress. The migration application launches in the system tray and once it's there, all you can do as a user is to terminate it. This application desperately needs to provide status information: it should be possible to retrieve a total number of messages and provide a progress bar of transfer, showing the number of items processed and the path or name of the current folder that is being transferred. There are other migration methods available, including server-to-server transfer of emails but we used their application because Edwin has mail stored both locally and our in-office IMAP server so it appeared to me that there was no other option.
- Customer service: as soon as we started the migration service, we ran into a number of problems. Reading through the on-line help for GMail provided no answers and, in one case, the documentation was out of sync with the application. So I sent an e-mail to their support service and waited for a response. And waited. Three days later, I received a response which was unsatisfactory and did not answer my questions; instead, I was pointed to the on-line documentation and back to square one. This is utterly unacceptable: as a business, we require support. Real support and, having been in the business for a decade, I have seen that the only way support can be effective (especially in urgent situations) is via telephone, so that customers can have an agent interactively diagnose their problems. As a business, if my customer's email service stops working, they will phone me up and want to know why. If I were to provide a service on behalf of a third party, I must have the ability to contact that provider when something goes wrong.
- Service updates: when something does go wrong, the only information I have to allow me to manage my client's expectations comes from Google's Apps Status Dashboard which shows me whether everything is working or not. This is great when things work, but when things go wrong, the information provided is scant and limited to "something has gone wrong". Having said this though, Google do provide rather good incident reports once they have identified the cause of any problem.
So why am I railing against Google? I support the work they do - they've worked very hard to improve people's access to data but in doing so have become very powerful. They use your data to advertise to you, which is why their services are free. However, to quote Aunt May from Spider-Man: "With great power comes great responsibility". Google have shirked their responsibilities: with GMail, you data is stored unencrypted on their servers, protected only by a password and used to make money and, when things go wrong, there's no-one to call.
I don't have a problem with Google holding my e-mail; I understand the technology behind AdSense and I understand the need to make money, but when a company starts offering services to business (i.e. my clients) and is not able to back up their offering with working, usable technology and good support, I'll back off and switch to someone else, as I have done.