Google Apps Are No Gift to Small Biz

It is a big deal that it will be available offline, but the negatives are an even bigger deal.
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There is a bit too much Googling goin' on.

Last week, mondo software giant

Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

announced that its online-only suite of word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software, Google Apps, would step off of the Web and onto desktops around the globe.

The Mountain View, Calif., company is augmenting its family of office-productivity software by slowly releasing a version that runs offline -- that is, when your computer is

not

connected to the Web -- over the next several weeks. (Download the Google Gears app here, (

http://gears.google.com/), then wait for a prompt to appear in your version of Google Docs, probably within a week or so.) The service, like all Google Apps products, is free to start; more robust versions cost $50 per user, per year.

That may not sound exactly revolutionary, but trust me: Google Apps moving off the Web is a big, big deal. First, taking the product offline removes a major barrier to entry for many small businesses. Google Apps in its current form is slick and all, but 24/7 Web access is by no means a gimme here on planet small biz. Locking up your digital life in a place where you can't always find it is downright terrifying. (When you can't get online, you can't get to your stuff. Until now.)

Second, the move further reinforces Google's street cred with the smaller shop. Love or hate the Google product, it's tough now to dismiss Larry and Sergey's efforts to compete with

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

,

Sun

(JAVA)

, ZoHo (

www.zoho.com) and the rest of the small-business productivity players.

Now for the Negatives

But before we all get gushy-eyed about Google Apps, let me offer a very serious word to the wise: I have been using the program in its various incantations for well over a year in my little digital world. And though it is an effective collaborative tool, it is definitely not your primary software weapon of choice just yet.

Google Apps is a clutter-magnet of almost epic proportions.

Its great strength -- and its great weakness -- is that it is free. That means it is far, far too easy to create multiple Google Apps accounts. I personally have three. One is tied to my indispensable 10-year-old mindspring.com email accounts. One is tied to my Gmail identity, which I need in order to have a Google Docs account. And one is tied to my partners on my radio show, all of whom have a few Google Apps accounts of their own -- as do my contractors, my vendors, my customers...

The problem is that Google Apps launches from the by-now ubiquitous white search-engine homepage that is the Google brand. And the prompt that identifies which account you are in is just small enough to not easily see.

See that email address in the upper right-hand corner? Sure, it's elegant and understated, but it is also maddeningly easy to end up working in the wrong Google Apps account. And once you're in the wrong account, just try to do business. You might as well scream in the wind.

Collaborators must re-identitfy themselves in the new "wrong" account in order to share content. Most just give up, so sharing tends not to happen. And documents saved in the wrong identity are effectively lost from the rest of the business. Team members are often not notified of upgrades. Jobs don't get completed. Clients call up and yell. You all know the drill.

Also, keeping all your Google docs synced is no small feat. Moving a document from one identity to another is just, well ... here, let me explain: Download the document. Save it locally -- you need the same means of organizing your files on your PC that you were supposed to not need once you went with Google. Log out of the wrong Google Apps account. Sign back in with the right account. (What is the darn password again?) Import the new old file to the correct location. But remember that all your saved versions are stuck back in the old accounts. So if you need something, back you have to go.

It gets pretty old pretty fast.

Bottom line: Google Apps is useful to the small business. It is a fabulous and free way to create content, but shuttling your

entire

business document stash over to Google just because you can do a few things without being connected to the Web would be a major error.

You still need a more developed means of organizing and sharing your files. I recommend testing more robust online collaboration and project management tools -- say, something like BaseCamp or QuickBase, which create a more centralized, if less flexible, online environment. And you should certainly maintain a solid local directory system on your PC and make sure your backups are up to date.

Yes, Google Apps is a great small-business tool. But it should

not

be your only small-business tool -- at least not yet.

Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.