Bootstrapping the Back Office with Blackberry and Google Apps

By  Aaron Cruikshank, President, Ignitia Consulting — February 24, 2010

My firm is a big advocate of bootstrapping IT solutions for start-ups. Too often, our clients get quotes from IT services companies who want them to purchase and install Microsoft Small Business Server and BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) for a 3 to 5 person office. They get quotes for the hardware and the licenses for the software (plus an IT consultant's time) that are often in the $20,000 - $30,000 range.
 
What I propose is that you can get nearly the same functionality by using Blackberry Internet Server (BIS) provided by your wireless company and Google Apps for a fraction of the cost.

Let's start with Google Apps -- if you haven't seen it, it's a neat package of Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar and Google Talk. The main advantage of using this over just trying to make all of these tools work together individually is Google Apps gives you some admin control over all of the tools. For one, you can set up your account with your existing domain name so your team gets e-mails like jake@yourcompany.com instead of poolboy_jake69@gmail.com.

You can also create up to 50 accounts with 7+ GB of e-mail storage for free under that domain name. Shared calendars? Yes. File storage? Yes (up to 1 GB per account). That's just the free version. If you are willing to pay $50/year per user, the features get even better. Going forward, I'm just going to be talking about the free version of Google Apps because unless you're a big shop that's likely what you're going to use.

Assuming that you've got some BlackBerrys from your local cell phone provider and you've set up a Google Apps account for your business -- you're well on your way. All you need to set up Google Apps for your business is FTP access to your company's web host (you need to place a file in the home directory to let Google know that you actually own that domain). Let's go through the steps to getting these systems working well together.

E-mail

Before you can start using your e-mail with Google Apps, you'll have to re-direct your MX records at your web host to Google Apps. There's a great tutorial in the Google Apps help directory to show you how to do that here. Once your e-mail account is set up in Google Apps and is receiving e-mail, you want to go to your "settings" tab in your new e-mail account, click on the "Forwarding and POP/IMAP" tab and enable POP3 access if it is not already enabled.

Note: While this article isn't about Outlook or other e-mail clients, it's worth noting that Google Apps plays really well with Outlook as well as other mail clients.

At this point, as long as you know your Google Apps e-mail and password, it's as easy as adding a new e-mail account to your BlackBerry through your cell phone company's BIS portal or through the setup wizard right on the phone. Remember, with Google Apps, your username is your entire e-mail address and your password is whatever password you set for your Google Apps account.

You'll need to log into your BIS account through your wireless company if you want to change your signature from "sent from my <insert telco> BlackBerry."  I highly recommend you do this.

That's essentially it for e-mail but if you are someone who uses the more advanced features of Gmail, I would recommend installing the Enhanced Gmail Plug-in for BlackBerry® smartphones from RIM. This will let you mark messages as spam, file messages into folders, etc.

Calendar

I stopped plugging my BlackBerry into my computer months ago once I installed Google Sync on my BlackBerry. Google Sync wirelessly syncs with your Google Apps account and updates your appointments (and your contacts) both ways. You can download Google Sync here.

Now, this is a neat toy with a regular Gmail account. With a Google Apps account, it's on fire! Here's why: in Google Apps, you can share your calendar with people in your own company. If they want to set up a meeting, they can check your schedule, find a hole and invite you. As soon as they do this, it pops up on your BlackBerry calendar waiting for you to accept or decline the meeting.

If you have an admin assistant, you can give them admin access to your calendar in Google Apps and it lets them add or remove appointments for you. I had a big research project that I was doing earlier this year and we hired an admin to call the research subjects to book interview times. When she booked them, she entered the appointment in my calendar and within minutes, it showed up on my BlackBerry -- all without any intervention from me. If I added and appointment in my BlackBerry, it would show up on my Google Apps calendar moments later so the admin would know I wasn't available.

As a bonus, you can set Google Sync to also sync up your contacts. Doesn't sound like a big deal but it is nice to have everything backed up if your BlackBerry packs it in (mine did recently). It's also a lot easier to clean up your contacts list on the computer through Google Apps than on the screen of your Blackberry.

Two important things to note before you use Google Sync:

1.     If your BlackBerry already has a pretty full calendar, make sure that your Google Apps calendar is empty or it will cause problems. I had the opposite problem when I installed it -- I had lots of events in my Google Calendar and my BlackBerry and was hoping the sync would sort things out. It didn't. I had to make sure my BlackBerry was synced to Outlook, then sync outlook to Google Apps, then wipe the calendar on my BlackBerry before running Google Sync for the first time.

2.     If you're using Google Sync for your desktop computer to sync Outlook to Google Apps, it can cause conflicts if you still try to use RIM's desktop manager. If you make the switch to Google Sync for your phone, don't sync it up using the desktop manager anymore. No need.

I guess the take home message is Google Sync for Mobile + Desktop Manager + BlackBerry = Problems. My advice is to choose one way to sync -- Desktop Manager or Google Sync for Mobile. I went with Google Sync for Mobile and only use the Desktop Manager for backups and software updates.

Files

Because any files that you store in Google Apps are available through an easy-to-find website (http://docs.google.com/a/yourcompany.com), you can download documents from this site to your Blackberry any time that you want and view/edit them with Documents to Go. On your computer side, if you want to access these files as though they were part of your regular computer system, you can install an application such as Gladinet so that you can have drag and drop access to your files. With this and Google Pages (also included in Google Apps), you can set up something very similar to Microsoft SharePoint if you want to.

Cost

Let's talk about the cost difference. I use the free version of Google Apps and a regular retail BlackBerry with BIS access. I have a voice/data plan for my phone that includes a BIS license. I pay about $100/month for 700 minutes of talk time, free evenings and weekends and 1 GB data/month. I never go over my data allotment and rarely go over my airtime. This is my only real expense. Google Apps runs for free.

This is compared to a client who recently insisted that I source a server/Small Business Server/BES package for them which got quoted at nearly $25,000 for their three person office. The numbers don't lie and while I wouldn't recommend anyone without some basic IT skills try to set up Google Apps or Small Business Server/BES, it's still cheaper to go with Google Apps.

The Bottom Line

In my opinion, you can do a lot as a small business with retail BlackBerrys and Google Apps for very little cost. BES + Windows Small Business Server is complete overkill for most companies with less than 30 employees.

Bonus Features

My team is a mixed Blackberry/iPhone/PC/Mac team and Google Apps is platform agnostic. Works just as well on a Mac/iPhone as it does on a PC/BlackBerry. Google is also always adding new features and functionality to Google Apps. How often do you get that with Small Business Server?

Aaron Cruikshank is the President of Ignitia Consulting in Vancouver, BC. His firm helps small businesses, non-profits and public organizations start new things or take what they're currently doing in a new direction. He's been a hardcore BlackBerry user since 2001.

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