Google says it’s time for long-time small business users to pay

When Google told some small businesses in January that they would no longer be able to use a custom email service and other apps for free in the workplace, it felt like a broken promise to longtime user Richard J. Dalton Jr. conducting test prep company in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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

Google said that long-time users of what it calls its old free version of G Suite, which includes email and apps like Documents and Calendar, would have to pay a monthly fee, usually about $6 for each business email address. Companies that do not voluntarily switch to a paid service on June 27 will be moved automatically to one. If they don’t pay by August 1, their account will be suspended.

While the cost of the paid service is more of an annoyance than a hard financial blow, small business owners affected by the change say they are disappointed by Google’s clunky handling of the process. They can’t help but feel that a giant company with billion dollar profit squeezes little guys — some of the first companies to use Google’s apps for work — for just a little bit of money.

“It seemed unnecessarily petty to me,” says Patrick Gant, the owner of Think It Creative, an Ottawa-based marketing consultancy. “It’s hard to feel sorry for someone who has been given something for free for a long time and is now told to pay for it. But there was a promise that was made. That forced me to make the decision to choose Google over other alternatives.”

Google’s decision to charge organizations that have used their apps for free is another example of its search for ways to make more money from its existing operations, akin to how it has sometimes placed four ads at the top of search results instead. of three and hangs more advertising in YouTube videos. In recent years, Google has been more aggressive in selling software subscriptions to businesses and has competed more directly with Microsoftwhose Word and Excel programs dominate the market.

After some of the longtime users complained about switching to a paid service, an initial May 1 deadline was pushed back. Google also said that people who use old accounts for personal rather than business reasons can continue to do so for free.

But some business owners said they struggled to contact customer support while considering whether to pay Google or leave the services. As the deadline approached, six small business owners who spoke to The New York Times criticized their confusing and sometimes hesitant communication about the service change.

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

Google said the free version didn’t include customer support, but it offered users multiple ways to contact the company for help with their switch.

Google launched Gmail in 2004 and business apps like Documents and Spreadsheets two years later. The search giant was eager for start-ups and mom-and-pop stores to adopt its work software, so it offered the services for free and let companies bring custom domains that matched their company names to Gmail.

While it was still testing the apps, it was even told business owners that the products would remain free for life, although Google says its terms of service for its business software stated from the outset that the company could suspend or terminate the offer in the future. Google stopped offering new free signups in December 2012, but continued to support the accounts of what became known as the old free version of G Suite.

In 2020, G Suite was rebranded as Google Workspace. The vast majority of people — the company says it has over three billion users in total — use a free version of Workspace. More than seven million organizations or individuals are paying for versions with additional tools and customer support, up from six million in 2020. The number of users still using the free legacy version from years ago runs into the thousands, said a person familiar with the matter. is with the count that asked for anonymity because the person was not allowed to make those numbers public.

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

mr. Dalton, who helps Canadian students enter US universities, said Google’s forced upgrades came at a bad time. The coronavirus pandemic has been devastating to his business, he said. Sites regularly canceled tests, some universities suspended testing requirements, and fewer students sought prep services.

From April 2020 to March 2021, company turnover has almost halved. The following year, sales fell another 20 percent. In recent months, things have started to improve, but Your Score Booster is still lagging behind its prepandemic performance.

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

Mr. Gant’s company is a sole proprietorship and he has been using Gmail for free since 2004. He said it wasn’t about the money. His problem was the hassle. He had to figure out whether he wanted to keep using Google or find another option.

Mr. Gant is still considering whether to switch to Microsoft Outlook, Apple iCloud or ProtonMail, or stay with Google. At the end of the month, he decides what to do. Microsoft would cost him 100 Canadian dollars a year. Apple would cost $50 and ProtonMail $160. Google would give it three months for free and then charge Apple for a year. The following year, Google’s price would double.

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

when mr. Sajanlal mr. Jiwani said Google would charge for each of their email addresses, Mr. Jiwani: “Are you serious? Are they going to scam us?”

Mr. Jiwani said he had stored transaction data for his 3,000 customers on Google Drive, so he started paying for the company’s services, although he is considering switching to software vendor Zoho. Mr. Sajanlal left Google in March and put his business emails on Nextcloud.

Stian Oksavik, who owns a side business called BeyondBits in Loxahatchee, Florida, that sets up computer networks for customers, has 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 charge and more about the fact that they changed the rules,” said Mr. Oksavik. “They can change the rules again at any time.”

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