One the most requested features in Google Apps for companies switching from Microsoft Exchange is the ability to provide access to public folders in Outlook. Fortunately, just about all of the features available in public folders can be made available online and in Outlook with a bit of ingenuity.
If you truly need public folders exactly the same as Microsoft Exchange, an excellent solution has been provided by CodeTwo, with their Public Folders product. Rather than requiring the purchase, configuration, and maintenance of a Microsoft Exchange server, all you need is an instance of Outlook with the CodeTwo Public Folders server installed on the local network. Everything else you need is provided by Google Apps. There are two main drawbacks to this approach: public folders are not available on the Google web interface, and CodeTwo Public Folders costs $160, plus ~$40 per user.
However, it is possible to replicate almost all of public folder’s features quiet nicely with Google Apps and a few productivity tools. Lets start by examining each feature of public folders according to Microsoft, and how it can be provided in Google Apps.
You may be aware that you can upload any type of file to Google Docs, not just documents. However, the problem with Google Docs is the rather irritating process of uploading and sharing files, especially if your clients are used to accessing these files in public folders.
There are 2 tools that make this process far easier: InSync for OS integration, and Harmon.ie for Outlook integration. If you have ever used Dropbox, InSync will be extremely familiar. It sets up a folder/drive (depending on your operating system) which give you direct access to all the files stored in Google Docs. It allows you to drag and drop files in and out of you Google Docs, and access these files in all your native applications. Harmon.ie allows a user to access all of their Google Docs from within Outlook itself and has a ton of great features that, in my opinion, add a lot more functionality that native public folders anway.
Share calendars, contacts, and tasks
This process is extremely easy, as Google has provided the Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook plug-in, which configures calendar, contact, and task sharing automatically. However, there is one minor caveat when it comes to syncing notes, tasks, and journals: the data will be stored on Google’s servers, but will not appear on the web interface. Please read the Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook support page for more information.
Centralize shared information
The methods we have discussed describe how to access the information, but it doesn’t tell us how to sharestore it. There is one easy way to centralize all the information that you want to share: add a new user called public. When you configure Outlook for the first time, use Google Apps Sync to configure the user’s account first, and then configure the public account second. When configuring InSync/Harmon.ie for file sharing and access within Outlook, simply configure public account here as well. If there is an email that a user feels should be shared with the organization, they can drag a copy of it from their own mailbox into the public folder, and everyone will have access to it.
Track and archive information
The Outlook public folders page describes this functionality:
Using the By Conversation Topic view of public folders, you can track responses to posts and the frequency of those responses. When a post becomes dated, you can archive the information using the AutoArchive feature in Microsoft Outlook.
The exact same functionality will be available both within Outlook and the Google Apps web interface. In my opinion, the Google Apps web interface is actually superior when it comes to grouping conversations. Of course, the archive feature in Google Apps web interface is also just as slick.
Help protect information
This approach lacks any real support for access right and permissions within the organization. If you need internal access control, one possible approach you could take is creating separate folders for each group of users: for example, you might add a user called managers, another called accounts, and another called staff, and only configure these for the relevant Outlook users.
Conduct online discussions
This is another area this approach lacks any real support. That said, online discussions are poorly implemented Microsoft Exchange as well. For real online discussions, perhaps consider Google Groups, and some of Google Apps other messaging applications. Google Wave was an excellent collaboration tool, but unfortunately it is no longer available in Google apps.
For small to medium sized organizations, Google apps has the potential to save a lot of money, and removes all the headaches involved with maintaining an email server like Microsoft Exchange. In the case of this second approach, tools like Harmony can actually improve the way users work. If you need public folders, and you want to save money, then this is an excellent approach. If you have been through this process before and found your own solutions, then please let everyone know in the comments