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Managing Your Life in the Clouds: A Guide for Windows Users, Part 2: The Google Experience

Google approaches the personal computing experience from the opposite direction than does Microsoft, and for this reason, the company's offerings are in many ways quite different than those of the software giant. Google, of course, is an Internet super power, and while it's best known for its dominant Web search engine, Google is involved in a surprising array of products, services, and markets, a list that seems to grow almost every single day. In fact, Google is moving so quickly these days that a sense of fatigue almost sets in. It's impossible to keep up with everything they're doing and there's always the fear that the company will suddenly cancel one of their perpetually-in-beta products, thus pulling the rug out from under users. (This happened recently with its popular Browser Sync tool, for example.)

Still, if you don't mind living on the cutting edge, frequent updates and all, Google isn't such a horrible place to be. In fact, I've been using the company's Gmail and Google Calendar tools extensively over the past year and a half as my primary email and PIM tools, and though the results of this survey might actually influence that decision going forward, I can report nothing but overwhelmingly positive results. One of the huge concerns with a true cloud computing company like Google is that service unavailability or downtime will ruin the experience. I've only seen two disruptions over the years to Google's services, once to Gmail recently, and the other to Google Calendar months ago. It's been very reliable.

Web solutions

Given its pedigree, you won't be surprised to discover that Google's best work is done on the Web, where they can (and do) make frequent updates. Virtually all of Google's products have had their start on the Web, and the company apparently moves into desktop development only when it really needs to.

Email: Gmail, Google Apps

Contacts: Google Contacts (part of Gmail)

Calendar: Google Calendar

Photo management and sharing: Picasa Web Albums

Online storage: n/a (though Google lets you purchase storage you can split between Gmail and PicasaWeb)

Notes: The big surprise with Google is that they don't have a dedicated online storage solution, though a "GDrive" service has been long rumored. Moving beyond that, Google's Web-based solutions are predictably excellent. Gmail is arguably the best Internet email service on earth, with an innovative relational database-like storage system that substitutes labels and saved searches for the limited hierarchical folders used by all other email services. The Web interface is basic, and offers no Web 2.0-type features like drag and drop and right-click, but it's fast and efficient. Through free or paid versions of Google Apps, you can access Gmail (and Google Calendar and Contacts) via a custom domain name, a process that is easy to set up and configure. Gmail's Google Contacts was until recently almost completely worthless, but with an August 2008 update, it now works as it should and can be used as your sole contacts manager. (Previously, anyone who emailed you was automatically added to your contacts list, whether you wanted that or not.) Google Calendar is a first-rate, standards-based Web calendar with excellent interoperability. (One issue: Google doesn't allow you to easily interoperate with anything but your primary calendar, which could be problematic for those who like to maintain multiple calendars.) Google Picasa Web Albums is the dark horse here: Few have heard of it, and fewer have used it, but it's actually a very decent photo storage, management, and sharing solution. Best of all, you can buy extra storage: 10 GB can be had for $20 a year, 40 GB for $75 a year, and so on; this storage can be aggregated between Gmail and Picasa Web Albums and, presumably, with other services (like GDrive) in the future. If Picasa Web Albums has a problem, it's organizational: You can't have nested folders, so all of your albums live in a flat view that take a long time to load if you have a large photo collection, as I do (843 photo albums dating back to 2003, occupying about 27 GB of storage space on Google's servers).

And in case it's not obvious, Google maintains and regularly updates a legion of online services that fall well outside the boundaries of this comparison. Some worth calling out include Blogger (my favorite blogging service), Google Alerts (email updates), Google Checkout (eCommerce service), iGoogle (Web portal), Google Reader (Web-based RSS reader), Google Docs (word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations), Google Sites (Web page creation), and YouTube (video sharing). The list of Google services goes on and on and on.

Verdict: While Google's Web services will appeal mostly to younger, less risk-averse people than will, say, Microsoft's, the company has a good track record and is wildly prolific. I currently rely heavily on Google services for my own email and PIM needs, and I can't think of a better endorsement than that. My online life, in many ways, runs almost exclusively on Google right now.

Desktop solutions

You might think that a Web company like Google would shy away from the desktop, but Google has a growing library of Windows applications and solutions, many of which are quite useful.

Email: n/a; Google doesn't have a dedicated email client, but it does offer IMAP and POP access to Gmail, which should work fine in any dedicated email application. Google also offers PC-based email searching via its Google Desktop application. Google Talk (instant messaging) provides Gmail notifications on the desktop.

Contacts: n/a

Calendar: Google offers a free Google Calendar Sync tool that synchronizes Google Calendar with Microsoft Outlook 2003 and 2007. Because Google Calendar adheres to the iCal Web standard, it can easily be subscribed to from any standards-compliant calendar application, including Outlook and Windows Calendar (part of Windows Vista). Google Talk also provides Google Calendar notifications on the desktop.

Photo management and sharing: Picasa

Notes: Offline access to Gmail can occur through your Windows email application of choice as Gmail supports both POP3 and the superior IMAP email protocols. What's interesting about this support is that Google's unique server-side storage system is exposed as more traditional folders in email applications, providing a seamless experience for those who wish to forego the Web interface. Contacts is a weak point: Outside of MobileMe, there is no way at this time to actively sync data between Google Contacts and Windows. So if you do choose to use a Windows application to manage your Gmail-based email, you'll have to manually import/export contacts, an arduous process. Google's Calendar Sync utility makes short work out of syncing calendars, but only if you use Outlook and only if you use a single Google calendar (it works only with the first, primary, calendar). If you use a different solution (like Windows Calendar), you can subscribe to your Googles calendar from that application instead. Google's Picasa application is so good you should consider getting it even if you're not a Google user (it's free): It's more complicated than Windows Live Photo Gallery, but it does more as well. And it integrates nicely with Picasa Web Albums, a key feature if you use that service to backup and manage photos online (as I do).

In addition to the Windows applications and solutions listed above, Google has a number of other desktop applications that might be of interest, though they're outside the realm of this comparison. Google Desktop provides Google-friendly replacements for Vista's Desktop Search and Windows Sidebar utilities, which might sound pointless but could be of value to those who have bought into the Google experience. Google Talk is a rarely used instant messaging application that integrates with Gmail and Google Calendar. Google Pack provides a free collection of sometimes useful software. And while I'm not a big fan of browser toolbars, the Google Toolbar (in different Firefox and IE versions) provides a few useful Google-related services and a must-have feature for those who use multiple PCs: Centralized, Web-based bookmarks.

Verdict: Google's desktop solutions are generally good to excellent, but some serious holes remain. Key among these is contacts sync: In order to sync between Google Contacts and a desktop-based email/contacts application, you'll need to find a third party utility. Some free utilities do exist, including OggSync, Zindus for Mozilla Thunderbird, and others, but they're complex or specific to unusual email applications. Email, calendar, and photo integration with the desktop is first-rate.

Mobile solutions

By the end of this year, Google will launch its Android mobile platform. But until that happens, we have to rely on the company's solutions for other types of smart phones, including Windows Mobile and the iPhone. Those solutions are widespread but vary wildly in quality.

Email: Gmail is available in a mobile Web version and can be accessed via IMAP or POP3 using native mobile applications. iPhone users can also take advantage of an enhanced version of Gmail mobile via the Web.

Contacts: Google Contacts is available via the mobile Web version of Gmail. Apple iPhone users can sync Google Contacts to Outlook only, and then to their device.

Calendar: Google Calendar is available in a mobile Web version, with an enhanced version for the iPhone.

Photo management and sharing: Google Picasa Web Albums is available in a mobile Web version, with an enhanced version for the iPhone.

Notes: While we wait to see how well Google's Android platform integrates with the company's Web services, today's mobile users can sample a variety of mobile Web versions of Google services. Few native applications exist, however. On the iPhone, there is a native YouTube application. There's not much to say: The mobile apps are decent and usually acceptable, but they don't integrate in any meaningful way with the underlying mobile phone platforms. This is currently a weak spot for mobile users, though a combination of desktop sync on the PC and the right mobile solution will get Google information into native mobile applications. Still, that's kind of a homebrew approach and beyond the capabilities of many PC users.

Google also offers a surprisingly rich SMS interface, given the limitations of such a thing. That's neat, but SMS is to mobile devices as is USENET to the Internet; it's only interesting until something richer comes along.

Verdict: Google's mobile picture is currently murky. Those with iPhones will have a good to excellent experience if they can sync through Outlook. Most others will be stuck with Google's mobile Web applications.

Final thoughts

Google's approach to email and PIM is cloud-centric, with PC and mobile solutions almost an afterthought. This will appeal to certain audiences, as will the Spartan cleanliness of most Google Web services and their generally open approach to extensibility. What's missing, currently, is the rest of the picture: On the desktop, the lack of any kind of contacts syncing whatsoever really limits the appeal of the Google experience, as does the absence of many native mobile solutions. You have to really work to use Google beyond the cloud, and that will hamper the company's success in this market until it's corrected.

That said, Google moves quickly, adding and improving services at an alarming rate. This evaluation should be seen as the slice in time it is. I have no doubt that Google's offerings will improve and expand at a much faster rate than the competition's.

Next: The Yahoo! experience ...

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