Strategies: Google's got a great price -- free -- on office apps

— -- To run any business, you need a few critical tools: email, word processing, a calendar, probably a spreadsheet and presentation program. The standard of all these office programs comes from Microsoft. But even buying it at a discount, the Microsoft Office Small Business program costs nearly $400.

What if you didn't have to pay for that? What if you could buy the cheapest computer on the market or use any old computer, not worry about software, and still get those functions taken care of — and taken care of well — without spending an extra dime?

You can. Google has a suite of services called "Google Apps" (for Applications) that may well replace your office software as well as give you new tools for collaboration. All free.

Google Apps is part the move towards "Software as a Service (SaaS)" or "cloud computing" (because you store your information in the clouds). If you have a Gmail, Yahoo, MSN, AOL or other account, you're already used to this concept. Your email is stored somewhere "out there" on the Web rather than on your own computer or server.

I've become a big fan of "cloud computing" for small businesses (look for an upcoming column on the topic) because it eliminates that pesky and expensive problem of tech support.

Google Apps is worth checking out ( Google Apps gives you a bunch of tools, including:

• email • word documents• spreadsheets• presentations• calendars• websites • videos • photos

One of the great advantages of Google Apps, besides being free, is that it's easy — really easy — to collaborate with others. You can allow others to either view or edit your documents — whether spreadsheets, presentations, word documents — just by clicking the "share" tab. "Collaboration is what it's all about," Dave Girouard, President of Google Enterprise, told me.

In our office, I've got a project manager in Hawaii, designer in Iowa, distributor in Maryland, account manager in Berkeley, and we're based in Palo Alto, California. We share documents, and, frankly, we often have problems opening attachments and keeping track of who has the latest version, and anyone who receives an attachment could edit it and share it without our permission.

Google Apps makes sharing and security much easier. "Your data will be more secure in Google than any small business can manage on their own," said Girouard. And what's really cool? You can put any document on the web with just one easy click. In fact, you can create websites as part of Google Apps, also free.

"You can be up and running in less than half an hour … You can build shared websites, use whatever computers you already own," Girouard said. "3,000 small businesses a day globally sign up for Google Apps."

As long as you have access to any computer and the Internet, you have access to all your documents. Most importantly, all of this is immediately backed up to Google's servers. You don't have to worry about backing up your documents to a storage device or online/offsite service. Google Apps is, by definition, an online/offsite service.

What if you're not connected to the Net? Some of your stored information, such as your documents and spreadsheets — can be available offline, to work on a plane, for instance.

The cost? Free. The "premier" edition that costs $50 per user per year, which gives you 24/7 tech support, larger online storage, and you can archive your mail for legal purposes, and no ads.

If you're used to using the Microsoft Office suite, it'll take some time to get comfortable with Google Apps, and you won't find all the functions. While it's more user-friendly than MS Office, like any software, Google Apps takes time to learn your way around. But I was quickly creating basic documents, spreadsheets, and presentations in Google Apps.

"Most companies are not going to stop using Microsoft products," said Google's Girouard.

But do I think it's possible to replace your Microsoft office suite? Yes. Google Apps will be adequate if you're starting or expanding a company and money is tight, if you don't have the staff to manage tech support, and it's particularly good when you need to collaborate with others. The future of small business is in the clouds.

Rhonda Abrams is president of The Planning Shop, publisher of books for entrepreneurs. Their newest is Finding an Angel Investor In A Day. Register for Rhonda's free business planning newsletter at For an index of her columns, click here. Copyright Rhonda Abrams 2008.