Mobile IT Case Study: Migrating from Outlook, BlackBerry OS to Google Apps, Android

After using Outlook/Exchange since 1997 and RIM/BlackBerry devices since 2004, I recently spearheaded a move to migrate TPC Healthcare (the boutique healthcare technology firm that I founded) to Google Apps and to Google's Android devices. For a long time I considered myself to be a big Microsoft/RIM guy, but over the last couple of years something really shifted for me, not the least of which was spinning off my business into its own entity.

Partially this shift was about saving money. At $50-per-year-per-user, Google Apps Premier Edition is a no-brainer for the small business owner who needs enterprise features. Prior to this move I'd been outsourcing seats on Exchange/BlackBerry Enterprise servers for $22.90-per-user-per-month, along with a Smartphone Enterprise $45/month/user data plan. I had become accustomed to these overhead costs, but when presented with the possibility of saving 50 percent while getting a broader set of applications, I knew I had to check it out.

But cost was not the only reason I switched to Google.

As a small business we have the opportunity to be nimbler than the large competitors we face every day. Having excellent communication tools and well organized data is a competitive advantage for us -- as is the ability to have shared-anytime-anywhere access to our assets. And as I evaluated our options, I considered Google Apps to be a practical and unifying move that could be done quickly with limited cost outlay.

Doing My Homework: Researching Mobile Migrations

The Web has made shopping much easier, but it has also made for a noisy market place. For things technological it can be especially hard to cut through the hype. Case studies abound, but can you find the real story out there? While researching, I came across an article at Small Business Computing titled "Small Businesses Find Silver Lining in Cloud Computing," and I decided to email several of the folks mentioned in the article.

Everyone responded quickly to my queries and said they were happy they made the switch. However, most had not progressed beyond using Gmail and Google Calendar. While intrigued, few had made the deeper dive into the suite of Google Apps. This trend was echoed by the second group I turned to for a reality check -- my approximately 250 fellow members of the New York Chapter of the Entrepreneurs Organization (EO). The EO is made up of business owners and founders, and our very active email distribution list is a great place to get the skinny on everything from legal and HR matters, to service providers and Web applications.

There were many business owners who were interested in switching, as well as many who'd already switched and were glad they did. However, many were quick to caution me about Google's ability to support businesses in the manner many of us would require. I was encouraged to use VARs like Dito and VirusWoman to assist in migration, and to act as an important safety net and buffer between Google's still evolving support framework.

The Skinny on Making the Switch to Google Apps, Android

The migration itself was both very easy and hard. Google has a really good understanding of Microsoft/RIM customers and has built a variety of tools to aid in the process. However, despite what Google advertises, little was truly plug and play. As an example, the IMAP mailbox migration tool we'd chosen to use mysteriously went offline five days before our scheduled cutover, only to come back with just 24 hours left to spare.

While I had good advice and documentation from our service provider, because of the sensitivity of this move and my desire to disrupt my employees, I did a lot of experimentation ahead of time. We initially had a trial account, and then had a two-week overlap.

Data from Microsoft applications such as Outlook, especially when paired with mobile devices via synchronization schemes, can accumulate a lot of baggage over the years, and the Internet abounds with horror stories of trying to move calendars and contacts cleanly. If you run into a problem, guess what, "Google it!" and you will find many others who have the same problem and in many cases provide very good solutions. Perhaps the smartest thing that we did was to stagger the switch, so we weren't moving everyone at once. We set up a "Domain Alias" that allowed us to forward the mail for individual users to our Google Apps account one at a time. Big company or small, this is a practical strategy.

Doing your business email and calendering in a browser after years of client server applications will be disruptive for some. Likewise, some BlackBerry fundamentals including speed dialing or contact search dialing require multi-step workarounds on Android devices. While Google has made it possible for users to continue to use Outlook, we chose not to do that. To ease the transition, we did a bunch of internal show-and-tells via a couple of Web sharing sessions to share tips and tricks, which really helped.

"Mobility" in the Cloud-based World Is Not About Devices

EnterpriseMobileToday.com tends to be centered on devices and their respective operating systems, so you may be wondering why I'm not talking about the Android OS, or the feature set of HTC and Motorola's devices. The real takeaway from a business owner's perspective regarding Google Apps is that "mobility" in the cloud-based world is not about devices in the way that it once was. In fact, mobility wise, someone like myself might move from a notebook (what I wrote this article on), to a netbook (like the one I keep parked in my kitchen), to my Nexus One (on my hip and anywhere), or any Internet-connected device anywhere.

To give you an idea of this at play, here's a simple anecdote. A couple of weeks back I brought my computer bag with me to the office and quickly realized that I had mistakenly left my laptop at home. I panicked for a minute, but then remembered that I had a very low-end netbook (which cost less than $200) at the office that we use for presentations that I could connect to my monitor and keyboard. In less than one minute I had access to everything I needed and was ready to go. While I could have done this before I made the Google Apps migration, it would have been far less complete, harder to do and much less organic.

Even Though RIM Makes a Better Phone, I'm Keeping My Nexus One

Cool as it is, Google's Nexus One and Google Apps have not changed my life (and I don't think the iPhone/MobileMe would either). My business is not more profitable, my customers aren't happier and my wife and daughter don't love me any more than before. Truth be told, my BlackBerry 8300 was a much better "phone" (there, I said it). Still I'm glad I moved our business communications/knowledge backbone to Google because our organization is becoming fundamentally better connected and more accessible. And I will be keeping my N1, at least for a while.

Five Things to Expect When Migrating from BlackBerry OS-Microsoft to Android-Google Apps

To sum up, I'll offer you a list of what to anticipate should you decide to make the move:

1. Google is evolving. Expect changes in applications, features and performance levels. The "G"-based world is not unstable, but let's just say its not what it will be. Expect things will not work every once in a while, and sometimes the applications will hiccup.

2. The feature set is often frustratingly incomplete. Don't expect to get full-blown Office 2007 on your mobile device, or inside your laptop browser either. The key to making Google docs work is to keep your documents, spreadsheets and presentations simple and without complex formatting (which is not necessarily a bad thing).

3. Android devices and the Google Apps suite are not perfect extensions of each other. While Google Docs are accessible from Android devices (or iPhones and BlackBerrys for that matter), don't expect your mobile experience to be identical to that on a non-mobile device (i.e., your laptop). Gmail, Calendar, and Contacts are well integrated, but Google Docs are not yet. This is a surprising omission, and I bet you will be scratching your head too.

4. You may miss Outlook or the native BlackBerry email application more than Google wants you to. The older you are, and the more years that you've used Outlook, the harder it will be to make the switch. Gmail in your browser, or on your device, is incredibly different and requires different thinking. And you may not be able to easily figure out how to do some basic things (e.g., turn an email into a contact). And while you can use Outlook and a BlackBerry with Google Apps on the backend, the experience will not be completely seamless.

5. Be prepared to Google for help. Even if you use one of the emerging groups of Google VARs such as VirusWomen or Dito for support, you will be Googling for help on both the mobile and desktop side of this equation. The good news is that there's lots of help out there if you're willing to look for it.

Kenny Schiff is a contributor to Internet.com's EnterpriseMobileToday.com. He is also the founder and president of TPC Healthcare, a specialty provider of real-time location and point-of-care communication technologies to hospitals and healthcare organizations.


Google, Android, Blackberry, mobile IT, RIM