One of my customers has been experiencing off-again/on-again problems with their e-mail host. Her current e-mail host has a very miserly storage quota on their POP mail accounts, which results in her maxing out and having issues receiving mail. The good news is, there are lots of options… including Google.

I did a little research on Google Apps (I’d been meaning to, and this was the perfect excuse to make time), and found I could utilize Google Apps Gmail service for free (in fact, the whole Google Apps Standard Edition service is free). Everybody knows regular old Gmail itself is free, but I guess I’m still somewhat surprised to find their business oriented offering is free (except the Premium version, which is $50/user account per year). And needless to say, with Google, storage is not an issue. This would allow her to keep her e-mail identity, and then leverage Google’s ample storage quotas. In essence, all I would have to do is re-point her MX records to Google’s servers, then make the necessary changes on her various e-mail clients (Outlook, BlackBerry Internet Service, etc). The net effect would be more or less transparent to her, and she’d finally be rid of the storage issues she’s been having with her old mail host.

During my research, I became fascinated by what Google Apps had to offer. And I’m very much a learn by doing kind of guy, so I decided to set myself up with a Google Apps account for my personal use. If nothing else, I’d be that much more prepared when it came to migrating the mail host settings for her business e-mail in a couple weeks.

So I set about the sign-up process, which was incredibly easy. Once I got through the enrollment process, Google required me to verify that I was the true owner of the domain I entered in during sign-up. They had two methods to accomplish that: putting an HTML file with a very specific filename up on my web site; or adding a specific CNAME record on my DNS that pointed to Google.com. I chose the CNAME method, let it bake in, and in an amazingly short period of time (less than an hour), Google was able to verify the presence of that new CNAME record on my DNS, and then I was able proceed with more of the setup process. The next step was to re-point my MX records to direct mail to Google’s mail servers. Again, Google did an outstanding job of detailing the process, making it a snap to do that.

Before I knew it, I was all done, and my personal e-mail was now comfortably hosted by Google. Not that I really needed a reason to make this change — I’ve never really had many problems with my old e-mail host. This was more of a learning exercise and proof-of-concept for me.

However, I found some interesting side benefits of making this switch… and it has moved me one step closer to having at least some of my electronic communications in “the cloud.”

  • I have more access methods to my e-mail than ever before. I’ve got my BlackBerry setup to get mail through BIS (like I did before), but now I’ve also go the “Mail by Google” application (not to be confused with the Gmail app for BlackBerry) loaded on my BlackBerry.
  • I’ve got two-way sync setup between my Outlook Calendar and Google Calendar. This was a neat trick that was enabled by a slick little program called CalGoo. Now here is an even niftier trick… I can add a calendar event to my BlackBerry’s built-in calendar, and by virtue of the gSync app on my BB, it syncs it up to my Google calendar. Then with Calgoo on my PC, that even will appear automatically in my Outlook Calendar. No USB sync, or Exchange/BES, required. Not as slick as Exchange/BIS, I’ll grant you that, but just a tad cheaper.
  • I exported all the Outlook contacts that I regularly sync to my BB via BB Desktop Sync to a CSV file, then imported them into my Gmail contacts. Those contacts then became visible to my inside of the Mail by Google app on my BB.

I guess, in some kind of subconscious way, I may be trying to find a cheap way to kill two birds with one stone: Finding a way to get off of Outlook (which I have a most intense love-hate relationship with) and the need to USB sync calendar, tasks and contacts to my BlackBerry. Granted, this may be a near impossible task, short of moving my e-mail hosting to Exchange with BIS. I’ve done this for several of my business clients, but I’m nothing if not a cheapskate.

The primary issue is that I have a tremendous amount of vital information tied up in my Outlook store, and I have it organized in a very specific way. As cool as Gmail and Google Apps are, they don’t currently have the exact feature set I need to be able to ditch Outlook. Yet.

Which leads me to a Gnomie Challenge (because the Gnomie collective brain is hard to beat). Help me design a substitute to Outlook and BB USB sync that includes these requirements (again, the trick is the solution must NOT be Exchange & BES):

  • First and foremost, it’s about the data. Whatever the suggested solution is, I must be able to port over all my Outlook data, including e-mail, contacts and calendar. And it must all be tightly integrated.
  • I must have a way to keep my data organized the way do in Outlook, which includes heavy use of Outlook categories.
  • A way to sync, at minimum, calendar and contacts to my BlackBerry without using USB sync. I’m halfway there with gSync and CalGoo, but the way contacts work in Gmail leaves something to be desired. If Google only improved their contacts functionality in Gmail, and then enhanced their Sync app on the BB so that it could sync contacts to the BB’s built-in contacts app.
  • And speaking of BB, that is my current mobile device of choice (a BB Curve 8310 to be exact), and I’m not willing to move to a WinMo device or iPhone 3G.

Of course, I may throw in the towel at some future point and just move my mail to hosted Exchange with BES. But I’m curious about what you guys can come up with, and I’m all about cost containment.

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