Google unveils low-cost collaboration platform

Google has introduced features to its online Google Apps service that will allow groups to share documents over the Internet.

The company intends to offer the service, called Google Sites, as an low-cost alternative to Microsoft SharePoint and other commercial collaboration packages. Company officials hope users will use Google Sites as an easy way to work together on a group project without involving their information technology departments, said Rishi Chandra, product manager at Google Apps.

Most collaboration software "involves significant training and significant implementation and they end up being a pretty heavy burden for IT to maintain," Chandra said. "The goal is to let end users create sites, and bring information together."

Google Sites allows a user to establish a central portal for collaborative project by using a graphical interface. The site offers a repository to store documents and post announcements. Other users can be invited to participate through their GMail accounts. The project site can be restricted to specified users, or it can be published for public access.

Once the site is established, the manager can add other Google services to help participants work together. Google's word processor, presentation and spreadsheet tools allow multiple parties to work on a single document. The calendar service can be used to schedule meetings. The task manager can keep track of the project's management. Participants hold chats through Google's messaging service. Photo slideshows are offered through the Google Picasso photo service.

In addition, Google also offers small programs, called Google Gadgets, that can be used to run dashboards and other analysis tools. Google Sites also offers an alert feature that can e-mail participants whenever a change to a document has been made.

By offering these features as a service, Google is hoping to lure potential users of commercial collaboration software, particularly those who are eager to get started on their shared work as soon as possible.

"Collaboration is a pain point for any organization," Chandra said. Software must be licensed and then installed, a time-consuming process that may slow the forward progress of a project getting underway.

Potential government users, however, should weigh the risks of using an off-site service to store documents, said Alan Pelz-Sharpe, a principal at content management analysts firm CMS Watch.

One reason it takes IT departments time to set up collaboration tools is that that the agency probably has a number of policies about the retention of documents and the software the IT department manages may support these policies. Storing documents off-site may violate agency rules.

"Governance and policy are not issues that Google will address for you," Pelz-Sharpe said. "If you're sidestepping the IT department, you have to ask yourself what is the ultimate implication? IT puts in place a lot of locks and bars to make sure bad things don't happen."

Chandra noted that Google Sites has no archiving feature but it may add the capability in the future.

Potential users should also consider the security and confidentiality implications of storing material off-site as well, Pelz-Sharpe said.

"How comfortable are you in having your information stored on Google servers around the world?" Pelz-Sharpe. "This is an issue people have to weigh for themselves."

The city of Washington has already used a pilot run of Google Sites to hold a bidding process for procuring a new evidence warehouse, Chandra said. The site held text documents about the bidding process and an embedded video of the press conference announcing the procurement. It also had a list of individuals who attended each informational meeting. The city plans to publish the submission from the company that won the contract.

Google Sites will be offered as part of Google Apps, which is available either free or as a paid service. The free service is ad-based while the paid version, which costs $50 per user per year, has support and more storage, Chandra said.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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