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Fairfax is moving 9000+ of its 10,000 staff to Google Apps - the series of online software and services that includes Docs (an analogue of Microsoft Word), Spreadsheets, online file storage, email, internet voice calling and video chat.
The move is designed to save 40% over costs today, Fairfax CIO Andrew Lam-Po-Tang says.
The troubled Australasian media company's stable spans newspapers (including The Mebourne Age, Sydney Morning Herald, DomionPost and Christchurch Press), radio stations, websites (including Stuff) and digital properties including Trade Me.
You can get free versions of most elements of Google Apps. The $US50 per user per year commercial version adds extras including customisable domains (web and email addresses), 25GB of online storage (vs 5GB in the free version) and an up-time guarantee.
I use the pro version. A common question I field is "Don't you worry about outages?". But you get those with an office software system, and I haven't experienced any bad outage (that is, beyond a couple of minutes) since Google Apps fell over in 2009 (of course, you've still got to worry about your own internet connection going down). Security is another issue for cloud services. I doubt Google's security is perfect, but then again they've got brighter and better-resourced people working on it than the average company does on its inhouse server.
Mindful of Google Apps' advance, Microsoft has released a cloud-friendly version of its current version of Office - a variant called Office 365, and associated online services like SkyDrive. Today, it previewed Office 2013 - the first version of its suite that will be built from the ground-up with the cloud in mind For example, you can open a document stored online from inside any Office application). But after a comprehensive look the Office 2013 beta, Computerworld found it the combination of online and off-line options confusing at times. "Microsoft still hasn't gotten the cloud right," it says.
Google Apps has a lot of potential for Fairfax. Google Docs lets more than one person contribute to a document, which has potential (and potential chaos) for collaboratively working on stories, or a document or spreadsheet shared behind the scenes.
And, at the blunt end of things, it will make IT and workflow easier as Fairfax trims 20% of its staff over the next three years (as an aside, I have to agree with Gina Rinehart's point in her letter to the chairman that 36 months is an excruciatingly protracted period for a lay-off programme).
I recently asked CIO Lam-Po-Tang what was behind his company's move to Google Apps, and how it would play out:
CK: Given you've already got Microsoft Office at Fairfax, did you consider Microsoft’s cloud products?
ALTP: Yes, Office 365 [the online version of Office] and Microsoft’s related suite of products, such as SkyDrive.
So why did you go with Google Apps?
Both sets of products are very competitive, but we believe that Google Apps has the edge in collaboration within documents.
We also believe some of the simplicity/reduced functionality relative to Microsoft Office will actually work in users’ favour.
I've seen you quoted as saying some power users will stay on MS Office? Is that correct? Any particular app this applies to? (Personally I find Spreadsheets pretty feature-limited and slow). And is it because of feature or bandwidth limitations?
Correct. [Some will stay on] Microsoft Office apps Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
The main reason is some users need the additional functionality that Google Apps does not provide – yet.
We’ve taken a pretty conservative position on how many users will complement Google Apps with Microsoft Office, because we believe that the usability and collaboration aspects will stimulate adoption.
Will moving to Apps across the organisation increase Fairfax’s broadband bills?
We don’t believe so, but we will be monitoring network usage carefully as we rollout, in particular in locations where broadband is limited to begin with.
What's the timetable for phasing in Google Apps? When will they come to Fairfax NZ?
We are still working on phasing.
Will the rollout be influenced by local broadband - e.g. would you consider leaving a provincial paper with so-so or lousy broadband on MS Office and other offline products?
Local broadband will affect the app set we advocate to users.
[Google Apps’] office productivity tools are very efficient in in bandwidth consumption, but desktop videoconferencing and Google Video for Business may be limited by local bandwidth availability.
Did you have concerns about security or data sovereignty issues? How did you overcome them?
We did have concerns initially, but an extensive legal and business review of the change in risk exposure established that the change was acceptable.
I've spoken to some staff at NZ Post (an early Google Apps adopter in NZ) who were just outright hostile to Apps as a different way of working. How do you deal with the culture shift?
Culture and values are critical elements in our overall transformation programme, in which this initiative is but one item.
Specifically, we will have a comprehensive change management, training and user support programme throughout the rollout.
Early feedback indicates that many of our staff are already familiar with the tools and welcome the change.
Do you get involved in areas like Apps' potential for collaborating on stories, and multimedia, or does that happen more on the editorial side?
No, that is for the editorial team to decide.