Google Apps doesn’t offer any tools or services that you can’t find anywhere else. As well, many of the Google Apps do not offer as many features as comparable applications from other vendors do. For example, Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint offer many more features than their Google App equivalents. However, Google Apps for many people is “good enough” now to meet most of their needs. More importantly, Google Apps is continually evolving, adding new features and documents/spreadsheets and presentation made in Google Apps can be exported to many common formats such as .doc, .xls, .pdf… etc.
What really distinguishes Google Apps is real-time collaboration. That is to say, many people can work on the same document, spreadsheet, presentation or site at the same time. Google apps keeps track of all changes and allows collaborators to compare different versions and roll-back to earlier versions much like a wiki. Google apps lets you specify exactly who can access your documents/spreadsheets and presentations and what type of access they have (view or edit).
The implications of real-time collaboration on teaching, learning and research are profound. Faculty can give students feedback directly into the same documents that their students are composing in via inline comments. Students can collaborate on group projects and assignments. Faculty, staff and adminstrators can collaborate on research, grant proposals, initiatives and so on.
It isn’t that people couldn’t collaborate in the past, but that tools like Google Apps greatly reduces the barriers to collaboration, eliminating the need to exchange copies of documents, coordinate editing efforts, keep track of versions. Essentially, Google Apps enables what the Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler refers to as “commons-based peer production.”