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How a nonprofit organisation switched from Microsoft Outlook to Google Apps

The New York-based QSAC lists the pros and cons of changing email client

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For many organisations, the choice between Microsoft Office and Google Apps involves myriad considerations, including costs, software quality, customer support, and the leap of faith required to entrust your data to a web-based service.

But for Joe Moran, head of IT at the nonprofit Quality Services for the Autism Community (QSAC) in New York, the impetus for moving from Microsoft to Google was relatively straightforward.

"There were higher-level people in our organisation who hated Outlook," he says of the Microsoft email software that connects to Exchange servers. "So the top priority was to find another email client."

QSAC, to be fair, was using the 2003 version of Outlook, practically ancient in the fast-moving world of technology. But given the organisation's budget and the needs of its users, paying to upgrade to a newer version or selecting another expensive software product to be deployed and managed in-house didn't make sense.

"I had been fond of Google services for my own personal use, so I brought it to the executive staff, and they were open to it, especially because it's free," Moran says. "We were able to get our mail off of our servers, so we wouldn't have to maintain our physical servers anymore. It was either spend money to upgrade or we move to a new solution. At that point, moving to a web-based solution made sense."

Although the standard Google Apps for business contracts cost $50 (£31) per user per year, QSAC's nonprofit status makes the organisation eligible for free service

Moran is happy with the switch overall, but says Google support leaves something to be desired. Phone support is only available for "emergencies", which Google defines as involving more than half of a company's users.

QSAC has suffered "little spurts of downtime here and there that affects a subset of our users", sometimes preventing access to Gmail or Google Calendar, Moran says.

"It's a little frustrating not having someone to call immediately," he says. "We have to resort to going to the help forums and submitting a ticket. But they're usually good about getting back within 24 to 48 hours. Depending on the issue it can be really aggravating."

QSAC's employees "call and want us to fix it and we can't", he adds. "We say, 'We hope Google's working on it'. Typically, it comes back within a few hours."

As director of communications and technology, Moran handles not only IT but also QSAC's marketing and branding. The organisation has 1,000 employees across 20 locations around New York City, but only about 300 email accounts, with most users on Windows XP. The nonprofit switched to Google last summer, rolling it out one department at a time while using the Google Email Uploader to move email from Outlook, and moving users from Internet Explorer 8 to Google Chrome. Moran figured Google would be able to support its own products on Chrome better than it could on rival browsers.

"I'm a web designer. Internet Explorer (IE) has been a nightmare for me, for a number of reasons," Moran says. "In addition, a lot of features in Gmail were missing in IE, and the weirdest part was a lot of the scroll bars were missing, so users couldn't scroll through their contact lists."

That doesn't mean Google products offer all the features Moran wants, even on Chrome. Google has improved over time, for example adding email delegation so assistants can manage their bosses' email, Moran says. But other features are absent.

"The biggest piece that's missing right now is a full-featured global address list," Moran says. "It's functional, but there's no real easy way for employees to share groups of contacts, aside from manually exporting and importing them." This is a headache especially for email addresses that are outside the QSAC domain, he says.

During the rollout, Moran identified the most tech-savvy person in each department to create a team of liaisons to help other users.

The lack of a preview pane for emails did bother some users, as did the conversation view, which Google now lets users turn off.

"Some people went kicking and screaming in the transition," Moran says. "But in the end, I believe they're much happier now, although it was definitely an exhausting process."

Most of the staff is still using Microsoft Office, and QSAC did upgrade to Office 2010 "because we didn't feel like our staff was ready" for Google Docs.

"There are definitely features that are not available in Google Docs that are available in Microsoft Office," Moran says. "The biggest one is having a decent mail merge system."

QSAC's financial department needs the advanced features of Excel and therefore cannot use Google Spreadsheets. But some users with simpler needs have started to gravitate toward Google Docs, or at least use a plug-in to sync Word with Docs.

Security is important for any company, but QSAC also must comply with HIPAA restrictions on medical records. Instead of just trusting Google, QSAC went to CloudLock, a third-party vendor that adds data protection features to Google Apps. The service alerts Moran to any changes in document access rights that might cause a security breach.

"We can keep track of which documents are being shared and with whom," Moran says.


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