About six months ago, about a dozen people in Buffalo, NY, including myself, wanted to put together a thing that would get people talking about great ideas. That thing was TEDxBuffalo, a licensed, independently organized, and much smaller-scale version of the global TED conferences that produce the vehemently viral "TED Talks" videos that even your uncle in Omaha thinks are nifty. Over time, that dozen or so grew into a larger group of helpers, and we needed something to manage our communications, documents, and lots of information. I was the guy at the top, and I chose a Google Apps installation.
Why Google Apps?
I chose Google Apps for a few reasons. For one, there had actually been a failed attempt at a TEDxBuffalo before our go-round, and we were able to salvage that Google Apps installation, allowing us to use the more permissive free installation before Google pared back the free user limit to 10 people. Businesses have compelling reasons to upgrade, but our TEDx event was a non-for-profit, all-volunteer thing, so we relished the chance to have our own domain tools free of charge.
Most of our group was fairly tech-savvy, and a few were outright veterans and fans of Gmail, Google Docs, and other free tools out of Mountain View. And I was far from impartial - I wrote my Android beginner's guide in Google Docs, manage a huge part of my life through Gmail and Google Calendar, and I'd used Google tools in collaboration with my fellow editors at Lifehacker before. Google was the way to go, it seemed.
The cost of a free tool was made apparent right away. It was fairly easy to set up "firstname.lastname@example.org" accounts from my end, and even create sub-group email lists for "Marketing," "Program," and the like from the Apps Dashboard controls. But keep in mind that Google Apps, especially the free variety, has a tricky kind of customer service setup, so it was up to me and a few other Google-savvy folks to make sure everyone could access their tedxbuffalo.com email - from their home computer, their office, their phone, wherever they happened to be when they checked in on what their volunteer group was up to.
With a handful of people, that's a little 10-minute session you can do after a meeting. With 30 people of greatly varying Google proficiency, that's two very energy-draining meetings. And when people receive messages from a "tedxbuffalo-marketing" list, but get back "You don't have permission to post" message when they reply, that's a frothy mix of both alienation and frustration that somebody has to remedy.
In the end, most of the people who really wanted to stay connected would figure out how to get at their email, and accept that joining an organization requires some level of hassle, no matter what tools are used. But leaving multiple account sign-ins to be discovered and configured by those who worked with computers for a living was probably a smart move. For everybody else; open a separate browser, or a private/incognito window.
What about Docs, where actual work gets done? For me, a freelance writer who moves between systems and locations quite a bit, Docs is pretty amazing. For a group of 30 or more people collaborating on broadly defined tasks, it's definitely more of a mixed blessing. To be specific:
- Never having to deal with the .doc/docx issues among various versions of Microsoft Office.
- A fairly easy means of sharing documents among members, if their accounts are accessible.
- Really easy forms attached to spreadsheets, making it easy to collect data from the group, or from the web at large.
- Text documents and spreadsheets are very robust (and automatically saved) while PowerPoint-style slide presentations generally look pretty decent (and inadvertently discourage too much reliance on slides).
- Lots of space - endless, really - for very low cost, and nobody needed to spend a weekend afternoon setting up a server or anything similar.
- The document list and "version control." The big ol' list of recent documents works great if you're a one-person shop. When you have a sizable group, it gets very easy to lose track of who has access to what, what kind of naming schemes you're using to designate something as "official" or "finished," and why Tim can't see the document that Mary supposedly shared with everyone. You can form folder-like "Collections" and share them, but we ran into the same issue - who can see them, and what do they mean? You need a plan, and a tight naming scheme, to use Google Docs professionally (much like any shared document space, really), but it's too easy to think it will sort itself out when it's all in the cloud.
- Simple forms, with simple schemes, look nice and fine. But just like Office, there are overwrought themes and clip art pieces that tempt people into making an otherwise fine data collection tool look like an admission exam for some kind of psychedelic preschool.
- Did I already mention the tricky nature of multiple accounts? More than once, I, or a team member, would accidentally create a TEDxBuffalo document in their personal/Gmail-tied Google Docs account. What then? Share it over to one's TEDxBuffalo account, then share again back to the wider group? Download and re-upload it? It's not a dealbreaker that came up all the time, but it occurred more than once.
I honestly can't think of a system that could have replaced Google Docs, and Google Apps, for our team, which was operating in lots of different places, at different times, and with all kinds of varying technology. It's easy to get irked at the little things - contact management, default spreadsheet column widths, the font selection on presentations - when the major headaches of file storage, backup, access, and, again, cost have been vaporized.
If we weren't working on a fairly tight five-month schedule to put together a conference, we might have brought in someone with experience to set up our Google Apps instance, give us some guidelines, and anticipate our what-the-heck headaches. And we might have made better use of features we never gave a chance, like a Sites-based "intranet," or a shared Calendar that never quite seemed to export itself the right way. We'll definitely do that in 2012 - even if that experienced person ends up being one of us.
In any case, we sold our sponsorship slots with kits made in Docs, invited attendees and solicited feedback (using an Apps-integrated instance of MailChimp), planned out the day in a big spreadsheet, and Google-Mailed the heck out of each other. And we shipped our product, so to speak, and we'll probably use Google Apps to do it all over again.
Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer, a former editor at Lifehacker.com, and the author of The Complete Android Guide.