Google Says It’s Time for Longtime Small Business Users to Pay Up

When Google told some small businesses in January that they could no longer use a personalized email service and other workplace apps for free, it seemed like a broken promise to Richard J. Dalton Jr., a longtime user who operates a school test-prep company in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“They’re basically forcing us to switch to something paid after they hooked us on this free service,” said Dalton, who first set up a Google work email for his company, Your Score Booster, in 2008.

Google said longtime users of what it calls the legacy free edition of G Suite, which includes email and apps like Docs and Calendar, had to start paying a monthly fee, typically around $6 for each. business email address. Companies that do not voluntarily switch to a paid service by June 27 will automatically be moved to one. If they don’t pay by August 1st, their accounts will be suspended.

While the cost of the paid service is more of an annoyance than a financial blow, small business owners affected by the change say they were disappointed by the clumsy way Google handled the process. They can’t help but feel that a giant company with billions of dollars in profits is squeezing the little ones — some of the first companies to use Google’s apps for work — for just a little bit of cash.

“That struck me as needlessly petty,” said Patrick Gant, owner of Think It Creative, a marketing consultancy in Ottawa. “It’s hard to feel sorry for someone who’s been given something for free for a long time and is now being told they have to pay for it. But there was a promise that was made. That’s what forced me to make the decision to opt for Google over other alternatives.”

Google’s decision to charge organizations that used its apps for free is another example of its search for ways to make more money from its existing businesses, similar to how it sometimes places four ads at the top of search results instead of three and blocks more commercials on YouTube videos. In recent years, Google has pushed more aggressively to sell software subscriptions to businesses and has competed more directly with Microsoft, whose Word and Excel programs dominate the market.

After several longtime users complained about the switch to a paid service, the initial May 1 deadline was pushed back. Google also said that people who use old accounts for personal, non-commercial reasons can continue to do so for free.

But some business owners said that as they pondered whether to pay Google or abandon its services, they struggled to contact customer support. With the deadline looming, six small business owners who spoke to The New York Times criticized what they said were confusing and sometimes wobbly communications about the change of service.

“I don’t mind you kicking us off,” said Samad Sajanlal, owner of Supreme Equipment Company, which provides software consulting and other technology services in McKinney, Texas. “But don’t give us an unrealistic deadline to find an alternative while you’re still deciding if you really want to kick us out in the first place.”

Google said the free edition does not include customer support, but it does provide users with multiple ways to contact the company for help with the transition.

Google launched Gmail in 2004 and business apps like Docs and Sheets two years later. The search giant was eager for startups and family stores to adopt its work software, so it offered the services at no cost and allowed businesses to bring custom domains that matched their business names into Gmail.

While it was still testing the apps, it even told business owners that the products would remain free for life, although Google says that from the beginning, its commercial software’s terms of service stated that the company could suspend or end the offer. in the future. Google stopped new free subscriptions in December 2012, but continued to support accounts for what became known as the legacy free edition of G Suite.

In 2020, G Suite was renamed Google Workspace. The overwhelming majority of people – the company says it has more than three billion users in total – use a free version of Workspace. More than seven million organizations or individuals pay for versions with additional tools and customer support, up from six million in 2020. The number of users still on the legacy free version from years ago has reached the thousands, said a person familiar with the count who requested anonymity because the person was not allowed to publicly release these numbers.

“We’re here to help our customers through this transition, including deep discounts on Google Workspace subscriptions,” Katie Wattie, a Google spokeswoman, said in a statement. “Switching to a Google Workspace subscription can be done in a few clicks.”

Dalton, who helps Canadian students get into American universities, said Google’s forced updates came at a bad time. The coronavirus pandemic has been devastating to his business, he said. Locations regularly canceled tests, some universities suspended test requirements, and fewer students sought preparatory services.

From April 2020 to March 2021, business revenue fell by almost half. Sales dropped another 20% the following year. Things have started to improve in recent months, but Your Score Booster is still lagging behind its pre-pandemic performance.

“Right now, I’m focused on getting my business back,” Dalton said. “The last thing I want to do is change a service.” So he asked his 11 part-time employees to start using their personal email addresses for work and upgraded the remaining two accounts to the cheaper version of Google Workspace.

Gant’s business is a one-man store, and he’s been using Gmail for free since 2004. He said it wasn’t about the money. His problem was boredom. He needed to decide if he was going to keep using Google or find another option.

Gant is still considering moving to Microsoft Outlook, Apple iCloud or ProtonMail, or staying with Google. He will decide what to do at the end of the month. Microsoft would cost you 100 Canadian dollars a year. Apple would cost $50 and ProtonMail would cost $160. Google would give you three months free and then charge the same amount as Apple for a year. The following year, Google’s price would double.

Mr. Sajanlal, the only employee at his company, signed up for Gmail’s enterprise service in 2009. Years later, he added his brother-in-law, Mesam Jiwani, to his G Suite account when he started his own business. That company, Fast Payment Systems, has helped small businesses in states like Texas and New York process credit card payments since 2020.

When Sajanlal told Jiwani that Google would start charging for each of his email addresses, Jiwani said, “Are you serious? Will they start deceiving us?

Jiwani said he has stored transaction data from his 3,000 customers on Google Drive, then started paying for the company’s services, though he is considering a move to software provider Zoho. Mr. Sajanlal left Google in March, setting up his business emails on a server hosted by Nextcloud.

Stian Oksavik, who has a side business called BeyondBits in Loxahatchee, Fla., that sets up computer networks for customers, switched to Apple’s iCloud service, which he already had access to as part of an existing subscription package.

“It was less about the amount they’re charging and more about the fact that they changed the rules,” Oksavik said. “They can change the rules again at any time.”

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