If you browse the Gmail Team Blog or the Google Apps Update Alerts blog you will see that a new feature, tool or user interface tweak is made to Google Apps about once a week. Some of the recent changes to Google Apps include the addition of Appointment slots to the Calendar, the ability to make simultaneous calls using Google Voice, and the ability to request read receipts via Google Mail. The new features appear automatically, there is nothing to install or purchase. This type of new feature release is not specific to Google Apps; other popular web applications like Twitter and Facebook update their applications in the same way.

Google calls this process “continuous innovation” and markets it as a benefit of Google Apps. Rapidly releasing new features and updating the product is great, but there is also a downside to this constant change that is not talked about by Google, the need to constantly update training materials and send out communication to users.

Benefits of Continuous Innovation

Updates with no fee

Unlike purchasing the latest edition of an operating system or the newest version of Adobe Photoshop, there is no fee for accessing the latest software updates and innovations in Google Apps. The $50/user/year includes the monthly updates to the application, and for those using the free version of Google Apps, the upgrades are free as well.

No labor costs

When a new feature like nested labels for Gmail is released, the release is managed by a team of Google engineers. The local IT Administrator’s do not have to spend time releasing patches or installing new software on each individual station. For some features, like the new Read Receipt’s feature, the system administrators just click a button to enable or disable the feature. This saves the IT department time so that they can focus on providing IT solutions and support on other IT challenges.

Take advantage of the latest technology

Regular releases of new technology allow Google to take advantage of the latest web technologies like HTML 5 and VOIP integration. Users on modern browsers that support HTML 5 instantly have access to features like drag and drop attachments and copying and pasting images from the web into the body of an email.

Feature requests are honored more quickly

With continuous innovation, feature requests like read receipts, bcc visibility, and support for rich text signatures are quickly integrated into the system. Google routinely asks users for product feedback and then integrates these features into the product. Many people are surprised to find that many of their feature requests are available by actually enabling certain Gmail or Google Calendar labs.

The Big Bang Only Happens Once

Once the initial Google Apps deployment occurs, the IT department does not have to spend time preparing for the next version of the software. This also means users do not need to spend time learning completely new versions of the software; they just need to learn one or two new features a month.

Drawbacks of Continuous Innovation

Updating Training Material

New feature releases effect training material like user guides, help documentation and eLearning videos. When a new feature is released, instructions need to be added to the existing training material. Large UI changes require most screenshots and eLearning videos to be recreated. Using old screenshots with new written instructions is confusing for the users. Google makes updates to their training materials on learn.googleapps.com, but each individual organization is responsible for updating the copies of the training material that they store on their own internal servers or sites.

More IT communication emails

Google Apps users who are on the “scheduled release cycle” have a two week delay before the release of new features. They can use this time to update training materials and send out communication to their users about this change. This involves creating a business processes to handle the communication of these updates.

Under-utilization of new features and confused users

When organizations fail to properly communicate and train employees about the new features, many of the features go underutilized. Employees may happen upon these features or just feel generally confused when the interface changes and the location of the Contacts link move up the screen 200 pixels. If the Help Desk staff is not in the communication loop they may be misinforming users and providing inaccurate support.

What is Google doing about this?

Google stands by its commitment to continuous innovation, so don’t expect the release schedule to change. However, in the past year Google has released several resources to support users with the rollout of new releases:

  • What’s New Calendar: This calendar shows the upcoming releases of new features to Google Apps.
  • Scheduled Release versus Rapid Release Schedule: Google Apps Administrators can select either the scheduled release cycle or the rapid release cycle. Those on the rapid cycle receive the new updates as soon as they are ready. Those domains on the scheduled release cycle have an extra week or two weeks to prepare their users and their training material for the change.
  • Updated Help Center: The newly designed and updated help center provides current instructions for how to use all of the hundreds of features in Google Apps.

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