"This is a key last hole in the Google Apps suite," Matt Glotzbach, product management director for Google Enterprise told me. "It is the nucleus for other pieces to fit into for online collaboration."
...is absolutely spot on. Hole - a black hole to which chunks of this should be consigned until they're fixed. Rafe Needham took a look and says that:
I spent a little time with it and found it to be a very strong wiki. The service's editor is simple and clean, and there's no whiff of the weird Wikitext markup code you see on earlier-generation wikis.
While that's both welcome and true, it is hardly unique. It is when you start adding gadgets that things go seriously awry. I tried adding in a clock as I work across three time zones. You can see the results in the editing screenshot I took and then the saved version. How is a user supposed to work around this mess? Google Sites uses AJAX to include these elements but it is dog slow. So slow in fact that I rebooted my Mac just to make sure it wasn't some randomly coincidental problem with my machine. But no. It's the AJAXian 'stuff.' Worse still - do I really want adverts embedded in these gadgets?
I then tried to put in a 'finance' widget. No sign of the FTSE100, DAX, CAC or the other major markets. OK - maybe that will come. But when I went to the Technology widget what do I find? Weight loss tips and Carpicture.com (see pic above.) What's that about?? It was at this point I was pretty much ready to give up. That's rare for me as I am one of those who likes to stick with new toys. Am I too demanding? After all, Google has provided a moderately easy way to include a number of additional elements like documents, spreadsheets and video (provided it's Google or YouTube). No I'm not.
The integration to other Google services is half done. There is no lookup into for example Google Docs and Spreadsheets. Instead, you're expected to cut 'n' paste the URL for whatever element you need.
After 16 months at Google developer's hands, the outcome is substandard. This is such a pity. In its JotSpot incarnation,
it was far from perfect but that didn't matter because JotSpot was shedding light on a new way of collaborating. Since passing into Google's hands, the guts have been ripped out and then re-assembled with as much Google 'stuff' as they could cram in but rushed to completion.
At the very least, Google should get rid of the gadgets addition facility and rework it. Otherwise, I sense the SMBs at which it is aimed will find the service a turn off.
Google has a real chance to differentiate itself from Microsoft - which is clearly what it wants to do, while adding significant numbers of users to its Google Apps offering. It won't do it this way because despite all the gripes around Microsoft products, the fact is Microsoft offers a more polished experience. Until Google truly understands this, it will find it difficult to adequately compete. In the meantime, offerings like Wetpaint and Ning have little to fear. They may not have the richness of other applications upon which to draw but given the usability issues I found, richness won't be enough to push users over to Google.
Dan may be right when he says:
Google Sites is a key piece of functionality for Google Apps. It gives the suite a way to integrate all kinds of components in support of accomplishing a particular task. Adding social capabilities and a database to the suite will turn up the heat on Microsoft to show what it has waiting in the wings to go beyond the prodigious Microsoft Office.
But as we know, technology frameworks are not enough to attract users. Google may be promising a lot but it's past history indicates that once it has shoved something out the door, it is comparatively slow to revisit, fix and upgrade. In the meantime, if you are planning to test drive Google Sites, stick to the main editor which is OK but please avoid the gadgets. They'll drive you nuts.