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Gmail Man Video Amuses--But Misleads

FUD shouldn't drive your enterprise software decisions. Read the terms of service instead of relying on snarky YouTube humor.

Someone showed me the Gmail Man video when it hit YouTube last month, and it's pretty funny. It lampoons Google for its practice of serving ads based on the content of users' Gmail messages, and suggests Microsoft's Office 365 is a better option.

While there's an element of truth in most humor, this particular ha-ha is intended to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) among IT leaders. A key premise of the video is just plain wrong.

The video starts with a skit that portrays consumer use of Gmail and then quickly moves to a business scenario. In that business context, Gmail Man advertises a product to an office worker based on what he has gleaned from her email. Problem is, the business version of Gmail doesn't serve ads--not unless the customer activates the ad feature.

You can't compare Microsoft's Office 365 to Google's free consumer service. Office 365 is a commercial service, paid for by end users. A more apples-to-apples comparison would be to Google Apps for Business, not to free Gmail.

With free Gmail, consumers accept the tradeoff: Google gets the ability to generate relevant ads (via searching your email), and users got pretty darn good free email. With Facebook, consumers trade all of their personal information for the ability to conveniently establish connections with friends (and, according to some claims, boost the levels of oxytocin, a feel-good chemical, in their bodies).

We all face "free with strings attached" offers every day. Would you like to go on that "free" vacation where "all you have to do" is listen to a high-pressure sales pitch to buy a condo? Or would you rather pay for the vacation and not have to deal with the hard sell? I know what I'd do, but you might do something different.

But what you're free to do in your personal life doesn't necessarily carry over to your business life. And business data isn't something that people typically have the authority or inclination to give away. That's why, even though Google Apps for Business offers a small starter pack for free, any serious use of the service is for a fee, not free.

More important, the terms of service spell out a few important points that should make IT managers feel more comfortable with Google Apps for Business.

-- Per section 1.4: "The default setting for the Services is one that does not allow Google to serve Ads. Customers may change this setting in the Admin Console, which constitutes Customer's authorization for Google to serve Ads."

-- The "Confidential Information" section has pretty standard language on what Google can and cannot do with its business customers' data. Allowing Google to act as a custodian for your email data is no more scary than sending a hard drive with critical data to a service provider for recovery, or outsourcing part of your IT operation to a contractor.

-- Section 7.1 clearly states: "As between the parties, Customer owns all Intellectual Property Rights in Customer Data, and Google owns all Intellectual Property Rights in the Services."

It's not clear to what extent Microsoft was involved in creating this professionally produced video, if at all. But the video's assertion that business users of Gmail should go with Office 365 to avoid having Google skim through their data is, at best, misleading.

The relative handful of companies that have dropped Office for Google Apps have adopted the mindset that they'd rather pay less for a service that's pretty good but doesn't have the feature set (feature bloat?) of the incumbent office suite. Paying twice the price for features you don't need because you're scared that the alternative provider will mysteriously apply the terms of its free service to its paid service is what timid sheep do.

A major barrier to innovation at organizations is fear. Question is, funny videos aside, are IT leaders going to let FUD rule their organizations' decision-making, or are they going to dig in, evaluate the benefits and limitations of various technologies and technology approaches, and make informed decisions?

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at or at @_jfeldman.

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