Thursday, March 18, 2010

Some Thoughts on Going from Exchange to Gmail

Over the Christmas holidays, my employer, Illuminata, migrated from Exchange to Gmail. The main impetus was that Exchange worked OK—until it didn’t. And then it was a major crisis to get email up and running again. We made the move to Google Apps with the aid of a local consultant and it went smoothly for the most part; the main issues weren’t directly related to moving off Exchange but with associated changes in our IT infrastructure. Here are my impressions after a couple of months.

Gmail uses a fundamentally different organizational scheme from Exchange/Outlook. It uses labels while Exchange uses hierarchical folders. Generally speaking I find labels/tags/keywords to be a better approach because many items don’t lend themselves to a strict hierarchy. However, a lot of people are used to a hierarchical system that mimics physical file folders and filing cabinets. Furthermore, some things—such as those related to client projects, business transactions, and so forth—really do work better as a formal hierarchy. You can do some things to mimic a hierarchy using labels but it can be a bit of a force fit.

Unsurprisingly, Gmail organization is also built around search and, in fact, doesn’t give you a way to sort other than by the default newest to oldest. Mostly I’m fine with this; the searching works great. However, when cleaning out my mailbox in Outlook, I found it handy to sort by name as a way to quickly delete or archive a lot of recurring emails from a single source. (Yes, I’m aware that I can use Outlook and other desktop clients with Gmail but I try to just stick with the Web interface.)

As someone who uses a fair number of different clients, I really like having a very functional Web interface wherever I am. Exchange has a decent fat client in Outlook—which I have installed on a couple of systems—but otherwise you’re stuck with a Web interface that’s mediocre, especially if you don’t use Internet Explorer. Furthermore, using Outlook meant that I needed a working VPN connection which often breaks in hoteld and at conferences for a variety of reasons.

The calendar in Google Apps works nicely, including for shared calendars. I find it a bit quicker to enter events than with Outlook though the difference isn’t that great. Again, though, the Web interface is much better than accessing Exchange through a Web interface.

One area where Google Apps is weak is contacts which is sort of messily tied to email. I’d really prefer to have a dedicated contact database of some sort. (I think part of the problem is that the import from Exchange wasn’t especially clean.)

Overall, after living with it for a couple of months, it’s not perfect but I definitely prefer it. The Web interface may be the biggest win but the ease of searching is nice too given that I’ve never been especially good at manually organizing.

(Overall, the office is more split on the move. The people who don’t like it are probably most bothered by the move from a folder hierarchy to labels which does require some mental reorganization and, as I said, isn’t as good a model for certain things.)

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