Google Apps (formerly, Google Apps for Your Domain) is an integrated suite of Google applications that includes an email program, a WYSIWYG webpage editor, online calendar, instant messaging client with voice capabilities and a web-based word processor cum spreadsheet software.

Business organisations, educational institutions and even individuals (like you and me) can use the Google Apps service for free (though a premier edition is also available). And since Google Apps require little or no technical expertise, it may be a blessing for small business owners who have little or no budget for IT.

The various components of Google Apps (like calendar, email, spreadsheet, word processor, etc) are hosted on Google servers and so the end users are saved from the hassles of installing or upgrading software at their end. Administrators can access and manage user accounts though a web-based control panel.

The virtual collaboration features of Google Docs are far superior and user-friendly than what is currently offered by Microsoft Office applications.

To get started with Google Apps, you’ll need a web domain name. Recently, Google partnered with registrars, Go Daddy and eNom, to sell domain names at $10/year. Domains bought through Google come bundled with Google Apps requiring no configuration by the owners. The downside is that India specific domain like .in or .co.in cannot be purchased via Google yet, though they can still be integrated with Google Apps.

If you are planning to use an existing web domain with Google Apps, just make sure that you have access to your DNS settings, which is generally available with the domain host.

Google Apps is available in two flavours – the standard (aka free) edition and a premier (aka paid) edition. The premier edition subscribers are given 10GB of email storage space (as opposed to 2GB+ in the free edition) and a 99.9% uptime guarantee for email.

Other premium facilities include access to 24/7 support by phone, the ability to hide all contextual advertisements on Google services and several advanced features tailored for the enterprise.

The premier edition doesn’t come cheap — it costs a whopping $50 per user account per year – but the good news is that most families, business owners and individuals will be quite content with the offerings of the standard edition because, except for telephone support and small inboxes, Google is providing the same applications in both the editions.

Google Apps service is a runaway success and much of that can be attributed to Gmail, the web-based email program of Google. In an era when 86% of all email messages that hit our inboxes are spam, Gmail is equipped with some of best spam filtering algorithms that have proved to be very effective in keeping spam out of our mailboxes.

Other than anti-spam technology, Gmail provides more than 2 GB of storage space even in the free edition of Google Apps. If your employees or family members prefer a desktop mail client like Microsoft Outlook or Thunderbird instead of the AJAX based web interface of Gmail, they can still use their desktop software with Gmail using the POP access feature of Gmail which is again free for all users.

Google Docs & Spreadsheets is another useful application bundled with Google Apps that may change the way you write and share documents with co-workers and clients. Think of it as an online version of Microsoft Word or Excel software — the look n’ feel and features are quite similar to Microsoft software except that you compose documents inside a web browser and data is stored online (on Google servers) so it can be accessed from any computer that is connected to the internet.

Google Docs & Spreadsheets is tightly integrated with GTalk, the instant messaging client from Google. Workers in various locations can edit the same document / spreadsheet simultaneously – they can open a chat window and discuss /review changes made by other authors in real time.

The next big question is whether companies should ditch Microsoft Office in favour of Google Apps? Well, it’s a no-brainer that Google Apps pose a real threat to Microsoft Office, the cash cow of Redmond. The virtual collaboration features of Google Docs are far superior and user-friendly than what is currently offered by Microsoft Office applications.

There are some downsides as well. Google Apps doesn’t have any PowerPoint style software for creating presentations. Secondly, all your confidential data (in form of spreadsheets and Word documents) are stored on Google servers outside the firewall of your company. That may not be to the liking of some companies.

Microsoft is also readying a Google Apps like hosted service (dubbed ‘Office Live’) that is currently available only in the US, Japan and few other nations. Microsoft Office Live services will also offer internet-based applications, branded email and website but unlike Google Apps, the Microsoft online service will seamlessly integrate with Microsoft Office software.

The future looks interesting.