Yesterday I received Google’s announcement that the rebirth of Jotspot as a Google App is now usable. Indeed better than usable, but that’s another issue.
Jotspot used to be a well-reputed free hosted wiki, but I was never familiar with it. I’ve been tinkering with Google Sites for a longish while now, so I can explain it to our users (Macuarium runs Google Aps under the macus.net domain for our collaborators and patrons) and I thought I’d share the impression.
1. Full collaboration site, for teams or particulars
In short, that’s what Google Sites enables you to build for every Apps user in your domain. Indeed, several sites per user. It reminds me very strongly of Microsoft Sharepoint in more than one sense.
The site’s home pages are designed so as to easily incorporate content blocks so very similar to Sharepoint webparts that one can’t help noticing.
And the site owner can fine-tune access to the wiki editing and viewing rights (everyone, all members of the domain, selected members of the domain; it makes it quite intuitive too). Something crucial for corporate use.
2. Template and wizard driven.
Google Sites can be full sites, not just wikis, and the app comes with some predefined templates (and I’m not talking graphics here) to build different types of sections: document repositories, blog pages (news, with comments), lists, dashboards (collections of widgets, here called “gadgets”), freeform. Everything as wizard-driven as possible. Setting up specific types of sections is a cinch.
The above mentioned gadgets can also be included in pages or menus. They can show from document listings to calendars to Picasa albums to many other things, and I suspect they’re even more flexible than that: it seems they can draw on the same type of modules than Google personal pages.
And yes, there’s several styles for the site design. Nothing fancy yet.
3. Wiki philosophy, ease of integration
The wiki way of doing things permeates the sites: pages are editable (if you have permissions) using a very competent visual editor, old versions are kept, new changes are tracked (and you can subscribe to them). While editing, you can easily integrate content from any of the Apps (and other sources) into the page, directly from the pull-down menus (which will invoke the appropriate wizard).
4. Navigation and site “tags”
The navigation menu is a weak point. By default, you have to use the site map link to find pages. In order to expand the navigation menu you need to go to site design and add individual existing pages; not a complex trip, but new pages should appear automatically (or at least there should be a way to configure it so). This is cramping.
On the other hand, there’s a very interesting twist. Every domain seems to have a sites listing page (something nice). And every site can be defined by its author as belonging to a series of “categories”. These categories act as tags: a site can belong to several, and categories are added to the list as they are used. Sort of a folksonomy, only you can still keep your corporate organizational tabs.
In short: this is the clincher
I know of several organizations that are already using Google Apps under their own domain instead of an internally-run intranet. My (still neccesarily brief) experiment with Google Sites suggests that now one can build a perfectly serious collaboration intranet without installing a single app. These wikis (project pages, collaboration sites, personal sites) may be improved upon but are very decent solutions. The ability to integrate the rest of the Apps in their environment makes all of them more interesting. This is almost a full operating environment (ERPs excluded, although one can see how “gadgets” can become ways to solve that).
All in all, I’ve just become convinced that Google’s vision of “software as a service” makes sense. As a customer.