Google says it’s time longtime small business users pay up

When Google told some small businesses in January that they could no longer use a customized email service and other workplace apps for free, Richard J. Dalton Jr., a longtime user taking a school test, felt like a broken promise to prep companies in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“They basically force us to switch to something paid after they convince us to go with this free service,” said Mr. Dalton, who first got a business email address from Google for his company, Your Score Booster, in 2008 set up.

Google said longtime users of what it calls G Suite Legacy Free Edition, which includes email and apps like Docs and Calendar, would have to pay 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 be automatically switched 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 a nuisance than a hard financial hit, small business owners affected by the change say they were disappointed by the clumsy way Google handled the process. You can’t help but get the impression that a giant company with billions in profits is squeezing little boys — some of the first companies to use Google’s apps for work — for just a little money.

“It felt unnecessarily petty,” said Patrick Gant, 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 being told they have to pay for it. But there was a promise that was made. This is what prompted me to choose Google over other alternatives.”

Google’s decision to charge organizations that have used its apps for free is another example of its finding ways to squeeze more money out of its existing business, much like it sometimes has four ads at the top of search results instead of three placed and blocked more ads in YouTube videos. In recent years, Google has been more aggressive in selling software subscriptions to businesses and competing more directly with Microsoft, whose Word and Excel programs dominate the market.

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

However, some business owners said they had trouble contacting customer support as they debated whether to pay Google or abandon its services. With the deadline approaching, six small business owners who spoke to The New York Times criticized what they saw as confusing and sometimes shaky communications about the service change.

“I don’t mind if you kick 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 find an alternative while you’re still deciding if you even want to start us.”

Google said the free version didn’t come with customer support, but it did offer users multiple ways to contact the company for help with their transition.

Google launched Gmail in 2004 and business apps like Docs and Sheets two years later. The search giant was keen for startups and corner shops to adopt its working 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 even told business owners that the products would remain free for life, though Google says the terms of service for its company’s software meant from the start that the company could suspend or end the offering in the future. Google stopped new free signups in December 2012, but continued to support the accounts of the so-called free legacy edition of G Suite.

In 2020, G Suite was rebranded to Google Workspace. The overwhelming majority of people — the company claims to have more than three billion total users — 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 is in the thousands, said one with the balance sheet trusted person who requested anonymity because the person was not allowed to publicly disclose these numbers.

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

Mr. Dalton, who helps Canadian students get into American universities, said Google’s forced upgrades came at a bad time. The coronavirus pandemic is devastating for his business, he said. Venues regularly canceled tests, some universities suspended testing requirements, and fewer students sought prep services.

From April 2020 to March 2021, business income almost halved. Sales fell another 20 percent the next year. Things have started to improve over the past few months, but Your Score Booster is still lagging behind its pre-pandemic performance.

“At this point, my focus is on getting my business back on track,” said Mr. Dalton. “The last thing I want to do is change a service.” So he asked his 11 part-time employees to use their personal email addresses for work and upgraded the remaining two accounts to the cheapest version of Google Workspace around.

Mr. Gant’s business is a one-man business, and he’s been using Gmail for free since 2004. He said he doesn’t care about the money. His problem was anger. He had to decide whether to continue using Google or find another option.

Mr. Gant is still debating whether to switch to Microsoft Outlook, Apple iCloud or ProtonMail, or stay with Google. He will decide what to do at the end of the month. Microsoft would cost him 100 Canadian dollars a year. Apple would cost $50 and ProtonMail would cost $160. Google would give it three months free and then charge the same amount as Apple for a year. Next year, Google’s price would double.

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

When Mr Sajanlal told Mr Jiwani that Google would start charging for each of their email addresses, Mr Jiwani said, “Are you serious? They’re going to start ripping us off?”

Mr Jiwani said he stored transaction data for his 3,000 customers on Google Drive, so he started paying for the company’s services, although he is considering a switch to software provider Zoho. Mr. Sajanlal moved away from Google in March and set up his business email 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 wasn’t so much about the amount they’re asking as it was that they changed the rules,” Mr Oksavik said. “They could always change the rules again.”

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