Five free programs for Google Apps you should check out

The Google Apps Marketplace offers plenty of free enhancements to Google Apps. Here are five programs which can help your business at zero cost.

Even though I already own more books (both physical and electronic) than I can possibly get through unless I reserve the island from Lost for a few decades, I always check out free books at the post office, bed and breakfasts, and campground rec rooms. It's interesting to see what's out there, we all love free stuff and you never know when you might come across a gem which bumps its way up on your priority list.

With that in mind, I've been checking out free programs for Google Apps to see what they can bring to the table. I'm not talking about shareware or trial products which then expire thirty days later but genuinely free programs, all with reviews scoring at least 4 out of 5 stars.

Top prospects

Here's what I consider the top five among the ones I looked at. Note this is not intended as an exhaustive review of each product, but rather an introduction to the related concepts so you can decide whether to take the plunge and try them out.

1. Mavenlink - Free Project Management and Collaboration

Figure A


Project management/collaboration are hot topics now and while Google Apps offers some default collaborative elements for working with documents, it could use a boost in the realm of project management. Mavenlink provides that boost by allowing you to set up comprehensive project details such as creating tasks, implementing time tracking, working scheduling, planning projects, communication with other project participants, and more. As is the norm these days, it presents a tabbed interface with which even newcomers should easily become familiar.

I set up Mavenlink in my test Google Apps domain, which was quick and easy - and there was no credit card or registration required (but you DO have to agree to give the program access to your data, which is standard across these apps). After clicking "Add it now" as shown above then completing the installation, I was presented with the following sample screen:

Figure B


The dashboard (Figure B) exemplifies how you can keep tabs on project details. You can easily set up new projects, configure settings, and view an activity feed. Messages (including attachments) appear right on the dashboard interface.

To launch Mavenlink (or any of the other apps mentioned in this article), log into Google Apps, click the "More" button in the toolbar and select the program from the list that appears. (Figure C)

Figure C


(Note: if you don't see the app listed, try accessing Calendar and then clicking "More" - not all screens will show these app additions; Search didn't find it for instance.)

This brings up the main Mavenlink page. (Figure D)

Figure D


From here you can learn more about the product, visit your dashboard, work on your profile and so forth.

The full product features are shown in Figure E.

Figure E


Mavenlink has additional Pro functions for $19 per month per user (yearly plan) or $25 per user per month (monthly plan) which include these elements shown in Figure F.

Figure F


2. RapidTask - Powerful to-do lists for individuals and groups

Maybe project management is overkill for you - companies with a small set of tasks or repetitive actions might not necessarily need an elaborate system to plan out their activities. However, it can still be helpful to share to-do lists among a group so employees are clear about what they need to get done during their workday.

Figure G


RapidTask is based on the art of the to-do list. You can create and share tasks, delegate them to others by email address, and use email alerts to monitor progress. RapidTask works with Google Calendar, Contacts and Documents.

I installed RapidTask in much the same way as Mavenlink; I did not have to give any payment details or provide personal information. I clicked "Add it now" as shown above, and then finished the installation seconds later. I launched RapidTask via the "More / RapidTask" menu option along the top of my screen. (Figure H)

Figure H


As you can see, this presents a simple and easy to use interface. There is a toolbar on the right (split into separate screen shots in Figure I for the sake of visibility) which you can use to work with tasks, create proposals and filter your view/move items.

Figure I


Creating tasks is as simple as clicking the related button. (Figure J)

Figure J


These can be assigned to other individuals (you can import your contacts from Google to help streamline the process - you are not limited to recipients in your domain) and linked with to-do lists if applicable. You can set due dates and urgency level.

When users receive the tasks they will appear as shown in Figure K.

Figure K


It's just a matter of clicking "Accept Task" which then opens the Figure L where they can add comments, attach files, and specify followers.

Figure L


3. Accounting tools by Wave

Figure M


Wave provides tools to help small businesses keep track of finances. You can create invoices, collect receipts and generate reports. One reviewer recommended it as an alternative to QuickBooks; it is that comprehensive.

The tools also offer the capability of linking with your bank account in order to help streamline the data flow. This might be a security concern for some, so proceed depending on your security standards and level of comfort. Wave uses 256-bit encryption to protect data.

I added the Wave tools with a handful of clicks and three screens later I launched the program. I had to set up the account as shown in Figure N.

Figure N


This was a nonintrusive process that then took me to the following dashboard screen shown in Figure O.

Figure O


I explored the various functions and found everything laid out cleanly in a logical fashion. I'm not an accountant, nor do I even play one on TV, but this is clearly a handy tool that those inside or out of the finance field can start working with immediately. There's also a video you can watch for further details.

4. Spanning Stats for Google Drive - Google Drive usage reporting

Figure P


Spanning Stats for Google Drive offers you various insights into the ways your employees are using Google Drive such as file types and data age. I didn't have any files in Drive, so I uploaded a few hundred samples to test with. After installing Spanning Stats via the usual methods (start by clicking the "Add it now" button) I launched it and it scanned my test domain while displaying the following cool graphic. (Figure Q)

Figure Q


When it finished it presented the screen shown in Figure R.

Figure R


This is handy. Even handier are the details shown in Figure S.

Figure S


(As I mentioned, I uploaded these files to test with which explains why they all have the same date; your Google Drive report will likely be much different.)

You can get a view of documents created by week or by hour. (Figure T)

Figure T


(Another graph below can show you the same information based on size of new documents.)

There is also a useful report showing your biggest documents and most active users. (Figure U)

Figure U


Why is the tool free? Well, the company offers a paid backup solution via a product called "Spanning Backup." This tool is designed to help you get a handle on what sort of data and how much of it you have, presumably to illustrate how critical this information really is to your business.

5. Appogee Bookmarks - shared bookmarks for all users

We've come to our last contender, Appogee Bookmarks from our friends across the pond in England. This app lets you share up to 500 bookmarks per domain for free (which seems more than reasonable).

Figure V


Why would you want to share bookmarks? Well, let's say you routinely access a set of company-related URLs - benefit sites, the company blog, support sites you need to share with coworkers and so forth. This add-on will help you do that. You can keep personal bookmarks separate if necessary for security purposes or just to keep within the 500 bookmark limit.

Add the application and you will see the following welcome screen. (Figure W)

Figure W


Appogee offers a widget in the upper left that you can use to create and share bookmarks. You can do so directly from this screen (Figure X), using the + sign to the right of the "Actions" link.

Figure X


Fill in the name and URL, then check off "Domain" if you intend to share the bookmark and click "Add." It will then be saved.

In order to really make use of the product you should add this function into other apps like Gmail so users can easily access the shared bookmarks. To do this, you'll need to set up the widget as a "gadget" for every user in the domain with whom you intend to share bookmarks. However, it's a quick process:

1. Access Gmail.

2. Go to Settings.

Figure Y


3. Click "Labs."

A list of Labs (which are experimental features you can activate) will appear, and "Add any gadget by URL" should be on top.

Figure Z


4. Click "Enable" to the right.

5. Scroll down to the bottom and click "Save Changes."

6. Now when you view the Settings screen you should see the following toolbar shown in Figure ZA.

Figure ZA


7. Click "Gadgets." The "Add a gadget by its URL" field will be shown.

Figure ZB


Copy the "Bookmarks Gadget URL" from the "Welcome to Appogee Bookmarks" screen above (or email it to users) and paste it into this field.

8. Click "Add."

9. Open Gmail and look for the "Gadgets" icon in the lower left.

Figure ZC


10. Click the Gadgets icon and the Bookmarks widget will appear as shown in Figure ZD.

Figure ZD


Users can then work with these bookmarks. I didn't find a way to import existing bookmarks but their support forum might have some insights to this process.

One final element to point out - as users add links they can use a "Shared links" field in the gadget screen shown above to select user names and access the URLs these people have shared.

This introductory presentation goes over all the details and is a must-read. There is a video here as well.

Bottom line

I hope you and your company find these free apps to be useful as well as interesting. The Google Apps Marketplace has plenty of other offerings, both free and paid, which cover a diverse array of functions and needs. If you decide you no longer want an app on your domain, you can painlessly remove it by following these steps.