Microsoft vs Google: clash of the titans

boxing_gloveA question that comes up fairly regularly in the small business world is how to handle email. Most companies start out with a simple POP account, or maybe even a free address from Google, Yahoo, or MSN. It’s an easy way to get started, but at some point you need more – integration with smart phones, shared calendars, links with company software, better security, and more.

Many companies are opting for Google Apps over Microsoft Exchange. It can be a good option in the right circumstances, and in fact we used Google Apps ourselves for over a year. The web portal is easy to use, the search is lightening fast, and I still miss the unique way Google organizes conversations. Google’s built-in spam filtering is excellent, and because they operate “in the cloud,” they manage the servers so you don’t have to. The downside is that if you have trouble, you are dependent on them for support. If you use a free account, good luck – it may take a while.

Microsoft Exchange is still the powerhouse in the email game, and the level of sophistication is hard to beat. It will take more technical skill to maintain your own in-house Exchange server, but if you take that on, you have far more options available to you. You can set security nearly any way you like, you can track down deliverability issues (generally difficult or impossible with a hosted solution), and most software packages that require email and calendar integration work with Exchange by default. Use a spam filtering service to keep your inbox clean, and with most services that layers in the redundancy you’d have with a hosted solution, to prevent lost email if your server or internet connection goes down.

Our Own Email: What We’ve Done

Like many companies, we started with a basic POP account. As we grew, we used some Exchange features but moved to Google Apps as our primary solution. As we continued to grow, it lacked critical features we needed, including security, integration, and ability to easily manage email settings across the company. We moved back to Exchange, and it was absolutely the right solution for us. We are operating far more efficiently, and our software is completely integrated so we can schedule and communicate with our clients seamlessly from our ticketing system.

My favorite (and unexpected) benefit of our return to Exchange? The integration with my iPhone is superb, night and day from what it was with Google Apps. I no longer have to sync my phone because it pulls directly from our server. That means that if someone in the office adds an appointment to my calendar, it’s automatically there next time I check my phone. Email and contacts too.

Small business network support: the coming revolution

vmware_virtualizationIn technology, you get used to constant change. Every year, month, week, day…new technology, new products, new ideas. Whatever. It’s the norm.

But in the last few years, my piece of this world – in particular, small business network support – has gone through radical changes. Anyone in our trade who’s doing things the same way they’ve always done them is missing out on huge opportunities to increase efficiency and provide more stable, reliable services for their clients.

Sorry to say, any of you business owners out there who are comfortable with the status quo are also missing out. You may want to ask your tech how he keeps current on industry trends.

We’re working hard to stay ahead of the curve, by investing in tools, training, and infrastructure. I’m part of an industry mastermind group with colleagues from all over the country, where we continually evaluate and share the latest best practices. As a result, we’re making the most of these opportunities, and our clients see the benefits. We receive alerts to problems so we can be proactive and prevent serious issues, we can handle about 90% of the work remotely, our tools allow us to make network-wide updates in a fraction of the time others can manage, we have sophisticated systems to track client history…I could go on but you get the idea.

It’s nothing compared to what’s coming.

Cloud computing, virtualization, data center as a service…these trends stand to revolutionize the industry even further, providing network infrastructure as a utility that’s paid for on a usage basis. In many cases this will eliminate the normal investments in hardware and software. The business ROI is enormous.

Whether it’s computing power, help desk support, application software, or storage space, major players in the industry want to bring you these services on a subscription basis. When I say major players, I’m talking about the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.

We’re seeing these services hit the mainstream already, although it will be a gradual transition over the next few years. The way you handle technology in your business will change radically as we all move ahead with these new choices.

We’re already looking towards the future to see how we can better serve our clients. So here’s my question to you: are you already falling behind, or are you ready for the coming revolution?

Mobile broadband: the best thing since cell phones

sprint-sierra-usb598-modemA few of my friends have invested in data cards from the cell phone company, otherwise known as mobile broadband. For months, I’ve heard about how handy they are, and yet I resisted because I didn’t want to add another $60 to my monthly cellular bill.

Last week, at an all-day conference, a friend shared his wireless access so I could get work done even though I was away from the office. Finally all the comments got through. Days later I placed an order for the Sprint Sierra Wireless USB modem. We’ve had it less than a week and I already see the productivity boost.

At the St. Louis Business Expo, we were able to schedule tickets for clients who stopped by without having to invest in the expensive Internet services provided by the conference center. In my all-day partner meeting with Microsoft the next day, I was able to keep in touch with the office via email and instant messaging. That evening, at yet another vendor partner meeting, my senior tech kept tabs on a server migration that was currently in progress.

Best of all, since we’re set up with tools to take care of our clients remotely, the wireless card makes on-call support a lot less painful: during evenings and weekends whoever’s on call can easily address any client issues that may arise, wherever they may be.

Installation is a snap – plug it in and it installs itself. Click a button to connect. Speeds vary depending on your location – just like cell phone coverage – but so far we’ve seen pretty fast response, broadband speeds.

If you live out of a mobile office and your time is precious to you, this is a device you should definitely check out.

You can skip Vista

windows-7-logoWe continue to have clients ask whether they can buy new computers with Windows XP instead of Vista. Deserved or not, Vista has a terrible reputation, and Microsoft is responding by rushing the next round of Windows to market as soon as possible: Windows 7.

There’s not a firm release date yet, but the product is already in beta, available for download to anyone who wants it. Speculation suggests it will be officially on the market this October.

Early reports say it runs better and faster than Vista so it looks like this one might be a winner.

Are you open-minded about open-source?

Linux Penguin Mascot TuxMost of us pay dearly to run the software that’s installed on our computers, usually some version of Windows along with Microsoft Office, accounting software like QuickBooks or Peachtree, and an antivirus program like Symantec or McAfee. Many products require annual renewals or maintenance contracts; others release upgrades regularly, making it a challenge to keep pace with the latest versions.

While keeping licenses paid up is expensive, it can be even worse if you don’t, with civil and criminal penalties (including jail time!) that far outweigh the price of the licenses themselves. Disgruntled employees are a common source of leads, earning tens of thousands—even hundreds of thousands—in rewards for reporting software piracy.

These factors are driving many businesses to explore the world of open source software, where licensing costs are nonexistent. Entire cities, like Houston, TX, are making the switch; likewise, the government of Brazil abandoned Microsoft completely in favor of open source software.

How can free software be any good?

Open-source software is distributed under a special (free) license that allows anyone access to study and change the source code. This allows the software to evolve naturally, based on the needs of users world-wide; also, as bugs arise, programmers contribute solutions. The pace of development can be remarkably fast. New updates are generally batched together into releases, with some sort of peer review or decision-making process to ensure that the software remains stable.

Many programmers philosophically believe all software should be free, while others believe that open-source development produces a higher quality product than commercial development. Either way, the result is a wide assortment of excellent software tools that we can all put to use.