Google Apps as Microsoft Exchange server replacement

I am constantly searching for a good replacement for the classic combo of Microsoft Exchange plus Outlook to manage e-mails, calendar, contacts and tasks easily. The key requirement is that it smoothly synchronizes with your PC, Mac and more importantly with your mobile phone.

Now I found about Google Apps. Google Apps allows you to move your primary e-mail server of your individual domain to Google, including the known Google Mail, Calendar and Contacts interface. All you need is access to your DNS/MX records which is true for most good service providers. I am using one.com, very cheap and good service.

Once you set-up Google Apps Standard Edition for free, you can easily manage user accounts with individual e-mail addresses (myname@mydomain.net). Instead of a classic Google Mail account, you can ensure that the right sender is shown (so not yourname@gmail.com or, yourname@gmail.com on behalf of yourname@yourdomain.net which is ugly, too).

Now about the synching…

With Google you get manifold options to synchronize e-mail. Either you set-up classic POP or IMAP accounts, which makes it compatible to most Mobile phones and desktop clients anyhow.

with your mobile

However, you still do not have Push e-mail on your phone (at least not for the iPhone which does not support IMAP IDLE). But, there is a solution to that.

Once you enable “Google Sync” on the Google App Control Panel (under Services – Mobile), you get can configure your device to connect with Google, as if it was an Exchange server using ActiveSync (with the address m.google.com).

Currently, there are some technical problems that do not allow you to switch on Google sync (the tick mark always gets lost and does not save…). It hopefully will be resolved soon. One simple work-around is to start a Google Apps Premium trial, turn-on Google Sync, then cancel the trial. Et voilà, Google Sync stays enabled.

Once you connect to Google via Active Sync, also calendar and contacts synchronize as well.

This works smoothly for the iPhone, but also for all Symbian Series 60 mobiles from Nokia using their Mail for Exchange software. The Ovi store now has the newest version of Mail for Exchange 3.0 which will sync calendar and contacts on your Nokia phone. Emails via Mail for Exchange sync are unfortunately not supported (version 3.0 also supports (finally!) viewing HTML e-mails….). You need to set-up an IMAP account to get your email from Google.

with Microsoft Outlook and Mac

I still have the struggle to get Outlook in sync (in particular Calendar and Contacts) with the Google server: there is a plug-in but this supposedly only works with the paid Premium service (€ 40 per user p.a.). Let me know if you have a working alternative. For Calendar, at least, there is “Google Calendar Sync” which does a good job. There are several free Google Contact sync clients for Outlook, but all of them do not work for me, in particular GOContactSync and the free Google Code project gcontactsynch. For the latter, I’m still thinking about contributing and making it work, since the source code in Visual C# is available. Let me know if there is a need from your side.

With Mac, things look similar: Apple Mail easily connects (with IMAP IDLE!) with your Google Apps mail account, and so does Apple Calendar using CalDAV. Only the addressbook creates major problems – don’t even try to use the sync process built-into the Addressbook application. It will mess-up your data, e.g., no first name, last name differentiation etc. Since Snow Leopard supports Active Sync it should only be a matter of time that Google Sync opens up also for Macs.

The struggle with to-dos…

There is still another fundamental part missing in that solution: the synchronization of tasks/to-dos and notes. Even though Google offers a simple interface for managing your tasks and notes, there is no way that I know to synchronize them to your Outlook, Apple Mail, your iPhone or other mobile phone. For this, at least Google offers a simple web interface on your iPhone to edit tasks, but travelling around you require an offline version as well… Let’s see.

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