Six years ago, Google Apps launched with a great suite of tools which could be used for collaboration and work for free by anyone with less than 10 users. A year later, the paid premium versions became available, and now that’s all that will be available, as Google has now stopped new sign-ups to the free option.
Apparently due to the difficulty of managing the experience for individuals and businesses, the options now are for individuals to use a free personal account, which still gives you access to the likes of Gmail, Google Drive etc, while businesses need to pay $50 per user per year. Existing customers, including those on the free version, will continue as before.
The implications of ending free Google Apps:
I’ve used Google Apps since launch, and maintain a number of different Apps accounts. From a business perspective, we’ve been inching closer to the user threshold to pay anyway, so it was always on my radar, and I have no problem investing in the right tools. No business can rely solely on free tools and services and be able to guarantee reliability, which is why we mix and match to ensure we use the best paid and free options together to do the best job.
But I’ve also recommended Google Apps to a lot of people over the years, and that’s going to have to stop with the loss of the free version, as it rules out a number of use cases.
Easy email addresses: If you own a domain and wanted to have the corresponding email addresses with a very easy set-up, Google Apps was perfect for that. Simpler than editing MX records, and it meant you could quickly use Gmail or other email services without any hassle. But it’s not worthwhile for $50.
Micro businesses: When TheWayoftheWeb started it was just me, and more people have been added rapidly to the team over the last couple of years. As we respond to increased demand, the revenue has covered the need for more admin and collaboration tools, but at the same time, I’ve been experimenting with other projects, like niche publishing, where adding the costs for 4-5 users would wipe out the profits from some sites entirely. The benefits of easy collaboration just aren’t there.
Businesses in developing economies: A cost of $50 per person is relatively low for most people in developed economies. It’s much harder if your income and profits are much lower. In countries where $50 is a substantial proportion of a monthly or annual wage, they’re now effectively stopped from signing up to what is a decent and fairly reliable set of tools.
New experimentation: I love experimenting with new projects and ideas. And while that isn’t going to stop, the free Google Apps option meant that I could quickly set up a workspace for a small team, run an idea for a while, and see whether it’s viable or not. Now new projects will either need to use alternatives, rely on more labour intensive methods, or be reduced to those which realistically cover their costs in a short space of time.
Sad times for Freemium:
The ‘freemium’ model has had some successes and some detractors, since it started to become popular. Offering free access with a further paid version was never guaranteed to deliver the returns for a business, but many people jumped on the bandwagon.
But with a company as big as Google, which apparently made $1 billion from the sale of Google Apps and mapping software to businesses and governments over the past year, dropping the freemium approach for Apps, it sends a pretty big signal to over people using that model.
And personally I think that’s a bad move. I agree with the idea that ‘if you’re not paying for a product, then you are the product’, but I also believe that many products need time and engagement to prove their true value, and the freemium model allows that to happen. I can’t remember how long I used the free versions of Spotify or Flickr for, but it was months and years before I then took the decision to pay for both services, and I’ve remained a customer ever since.
Encouraging people into online collaboration takes time and effort, and having free tools available means you can focus on engaging colleagues without any panic that you need to cover costs immediately. There are several great project management tools, for example, which offer a 30 or 60 day trial – but I’ve often found those trials are too short to get new projects up and running effectively and show any value before the payments kick in and the idea gets ended all too soon.
Apparently with more than 5 million businesses on Google Apps, the majority have less than 10 users and are on the free version, so this is the cost Google seeks to remove. But given the 6 year maximum growth available to Google Apps users, I’d question how many businesses have had the time to actually scale from a handful of users to a major business in that time, given the failure rate amongst small businesses around the world.
Damaging to Google’s brand?
I understand the logical business rationale for concentrating on paying users rather than free. It’s a balance I have personal experience of with clients just as Jigoshop, and it can lead to a lot of complex decisions and debates.
But Google seems to be making a lot of decisions which detract from their supposed stance to ‘Do No Evil’ and ‘Organise the world’s information’. Moves like putting all their effort into Google+ at the expense of other services such as Google Reader, dropping Feedburner advertising and setting it up for likely closure, and dropping free tools for collaboration show a company which is far closer to competitors like Apple and Microsoft now than ever before, particularly as Microsoft in particular has moved towards better and cheaper online tools.
In terms of belief, it’s harder than ever to know what Google really stands for, and what they’ll do next. That makes it harder to identify with them as a personal user/consumer, and much harder to include them in business decisions.