Microsoft Office 365 vs. Google Apps

Web browser or Office suite? Microsoft's and Google's office productivity and collaboration clouds pit rich and complex against simple and lean.

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New "Wave 15" (2013) versions of Exchange Server, Lync Server, and SharePoint bring dozens of worthwhile new features. Top on the list might be the streamlined (and Web-based) Exchange Administration Center, which has taken on new responsibility for managing public folders. The Outlook Web App picked up the ability to store messages locally and have everything updated when the computer reconnects to the Internet. The new Lync Web App lets users without the Lync client join and participate in meetings using just a browser. These are only a few of the most important improvements. Rest assured that all of the advances you see in on-premises server capabilities are being mirrored in Office 365.

Office 365 Enterprise now offers tools for splitting out on-premises servers and data stores from analogous services in the cloud. In most cases, on-premises and cloud settings -- including user management -- take place in one, integrated interface. That should make it much easier to migrate to the cloud.

Of course Office 365 now gets along nicely with Windows 8.1, with tiles put where you'd expect. It enhances (or at least enables) touch and pen input. There's also much deeper integration with SkyDrive Pro, a standard part of all of the business versions of Office 365. (SkyDrive Pro isn't really related to SkyDrive, but an expansion of a SharePoint feature formerly called MySites.)

You'll also find an enormous array of security controls that scale from small companies up to large enterprise. These include the likes of centralized retention control in eDiscovery, sharing restrictions in SharePoint (and thus SkyDrive Pro), lock-down features in Office proper that limit the use of add-ons, Lync administration features, and remote administration of mobile devices, including the ability to change PINs and wipe lost or stolen devices.

The Office 365 effort is huge, complex, and continuous. If you want to watch Office 365 improvements as they happen in real time, keep an eye on the Office 365 Service Updates and Service Updates "wiki" page. There are hundreds of changes under way. For example, this update page for Office 365 Small Business and Small Business Pro links to many dozens of articles that cover recent changes in Office 365.

What's new in Google Apps

While you need a graduate degree in Office-ology to stay on top of the Office 365 changes, much less the options, Google Apps retains its svelte, pointed focus. Depending on your predilections and needs, its leanness may be its greatest selling point or its Achilles' heel. Google Apps hit the scene years before Office 365 was a glimmer in Ballmer's eye, and it continues to stand out as a straightforward workhorse. But it isn't fully compatible with Office documents, and it doesn't have Office 365's massive control infrastructure.

Google's developments in the past two and a half years span a wide range of improvements, including the addition of Google+ and Hangouts, a major Gmail redesign, admin alerts, and many places in between. However, several of those improvements were made to the apps themselves, not to the official "Google Apps" umbrella that binds the apps. For example, Google still doesn't have a Google Apps-style controlled environment for Google+. While a Google Apps admin can turn Google+ on or off as a whole, the admin can't control who's interacting with whom (yet).

Google has been criticized for not keeping up with the Joneses -- or the Offices -- in many areas, including security and admin control, unified communications, social networking, and document compatibility, always a sticking point. Google Apps doesn't have a "Facebook for the Enterprise," and many customers have no problem with that at all.

Google has a lengthy list of detailed improvements to Google Apps, on its Google Apps Updates blog. From sharing Google Docs files with someone who doesn't have a Google Account, to tips on converting to the new Google Groups interface, the blog lists hundreds of improvements and changes. To many users, the most important change to Google Apps in the past couple of years is the ability to download and save Gmail messages and Calendar items, which is rolling out just now. For enterprises, the mid-2012 launch of Google Apps Vault was a key addition. For an overview, check out Google's Vault FAQ.

Not so long ago, a major selling point for Microsoft solutions was the ubiquity of Office. Experience with Microsoft Office was expected by employers, and by the same token, employees expected to work with Word, Excel, Outlook, or PowerPoint in a new job. That's changing. The number of potential employees that actively use Gmail, for example, has never been greater. Some potential employees may find not having to use Microsoft Office applications a distinct employment incentive.

Privacy differences

One important consideration, when comparing Microsoft and Google products, has nothing to do with price or features. It has everything to do with privacy. Given recent revelations about our government snooping on anything that moves, the questions about corporate privacy and how companies such as Microsoft and Google will use your data have only become more pointed.

Google's privacy policy makes no bones about it: "We use the information we collect from all of our services to provide, maintain, protect and improve them, to develop new ones, and to protect Google and our users. We also use this information to offer you tailored content -- like giving you more relevant search results and ads." Yes, that means Google scans your mail and may even look at the contents of your files for information that's used to serve up ads. There's a more technical look in the Google Apps Security Whitepaper.

Microsoft's privacy policy takes a very different tack: "We use your data for just what you pay us for: to maintain and provide Office 365 and Dynamics CRM Online services. We make it our policy to not use your data for other purposes. While some data may be stored or processed on systems used for both consumer and business services, our business services are designed and operated separately from Microsoft's consumer services. Microsoft does not scan emails or documents for advertising purposes." While obviously Microsoft scans the contents of messages (and possibly files stored in SkyDrive) to protect against malware, we have Microsoft's word that it doesn't use the results of those scans for advertising.

Both Microsoft and Google very explicitly explain that they may serve up your data in response to a properly filed subpoena. Both claim they will try to contact you if the situation arises, although they both are barred from notifying you should the subpoena involve certain governmental agencies.

Office 365 vs. Google Apps: Setup

The hardest part of setting up a free trial for Office 365 lies in choosing the right plan to begin with. If your company is on the "S" side of the SMB fence, the Office 365 Small Business Premium has a free 30-day trial for up to 10 users (actually, 10 email addresses). The plan taps out at 25 users.

If your company has more than 25 email addresses or you figure it'll take more than 10 addresses to get the features tested, start with the Office 365 Midsize Business trial. That gets you started with 25 free email addresses, and everything you set up in the trial can stick with you until your company grows to more than 300 users. That's the approach I took for this review.

Once you sign up for an ID (very simple, no credit card required) and log on to the Admin site with your new ID, you're greeted by the Admin Center dashboard, shown in Figure 1. You can start with the Setup link on the left of the Admin Center, but there's a better way: Microsoft's Office Blog has a new video that will step you through the process. If you want to skip the sales briefing at the beginning (though it offers a good overview of features you may not know about), the meat of the setup help starts at 4:50.

Figure 1: The sweep of the Office 365 Admin Center dashboard reflects Office 365's broad feature set.

As part of the setup process, you need to hook Office 365 into your existing email address. If you already have your own domain and email address (such as Woody@AskWoody.com), you have two options: You can either live with the assigned domain name (blahblahblech@AskWoody213.onmicrosoft.com), and stick a file on your website to verify that you own it (as I had to do with AskWoody.com), or you can buy a new domain from GoDaddy (typically $13 per year).

Setting up Google Apps for Business, by contrast, is like falling off a log. You have to go through the same Texas two-step to verify that you own a domain name or buy a new domain from Google ($8 per year); otherwise, the setup process is blissfully simple. Get your admin account set up and you'll find yourself at the Google Apps Admin Console shown in Figure 2.

Click Start Setup, verify that you own the domain name you said you own (a process that's now assisted, step by step, as long as you can log on to your domain's host with admin rights over your domain), and you're ready to set up all of the details for a Google Apps for Business account.

Figure 2: Google Apps' much simpler admin console befits a much simpler set of cloud services.

In the past two and a half years, both Google Apps and Office 365 have made enormous strides in their setup sequences. Office 365 now remembers your settings as you go through setup, so you can leave off and pick back up at any time. And the Google Apps approach to injecting a text file on your existing domain is very slick indeed.

The primary differentiation between the two: Office 365's setup is much more complex, simply because the package is much more complex. For example, Office 365 has licenses for individual users and packages that can be granted or withdrawn at any time, as shown in Figure 3. Google Apps are Google Apps, and they're available with or without a license.

Figure 3: Office 365 setup is more complex, in no small part because of the mind-boggling array of choices.

I had problems with the Results step on a new Office 365 user -- I got caught in a loop that consistently told me, "Sorry, it looks like that email address is already in use," even when I unchecked the box and told the setup routine to skip sending emails. I have no idea why. Getting out of the loop involved clicking Back many times. I couldn't simply back out of that part of setup.

Office 365 vs. Google Apps: Features

You no doubt know that Google Apps (with or without the "For Business" appendage) is only partially compatible with the standard Office file formats. Many people find the online-only Google Apps do everything they need. But Google Apps have neither the depth nor the breadth (nor the bloat!) of the traditional Office programs.

The knife cuts both ways. Google Apps were designed from the ground up for compatibility with all sorts of devices. They have multi-user collaboration baked in. Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, Gmail, Calendar, and Google Drive can store data on a local computer, but only by using the HTML5 capabilities of the Google Chrome browser and apps written specifically to run with Chrome.

The Microsoft Office programs are, well, the same programs you've used for the past hundred years or so. If you choose the right Office 365 package, you get full-featured Windows and Mac OS versions. They come along for the ride.

The Office Web Apps are free for SkyDrive, and they can be licensed and set up for private clouds. Just last month, Microsoft finally brought autosave to Word Web App, catching up with the state of the art in online word processors set a decade ago. We also got a new real-time co-authoring capability for Word Web App, which compares reasonably well with the Google Docs feature. (In spite of what you may have read, the online versions of Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote have had simultaneous co-authoring for ages.)

When you subscribe to the business versions of Office 365, you get two additional online products that aren't available free to just anybody. First, you get the "pathetically bad" Office Mobile for iPhone and Android, which I mentioned earlier. Second, you get the Outlook Web App. If you're currently using Outlook and you find yourself needing to check your mail without your laptop, being able to get at your Exchange (not Outlook.com, but Outlook) email, with all of Outlook's bells and whistles, just using a browser, can be a real eye-opener. See Figure 4.

Figure 4: With the business versions of Office 365, you also get access to the Outlook Web App, which works on just about any browser, on any platform.

There's a huge array of additional differences between the productivity apps in Office 365, compared to Google Apps for Business. Office documents almost always survive a round-trip through the Office Web Apps. For example, you can use Word Web App to open a fairly complex Word document, make a few changes, save it, and expect to get back a document that looks more or less like the original. You can't add any fancy formatting to the document in Word Web App -- the options aren't there -- but at least you won't break anything ... usually.

Google Docs, on the other hand, has no such guarantee. In my experiments, I've found that most simple documents go through the round-trip with few problems. Save a straightforward memo with Google Docs (File, Download As, Microsoft Word), and you're likely to come up with a reasonable rendition in the DOCX file. Not long ago, Google Docs broke a very large percentage of all the Word documents handed to it. Now, it appears to me as if Google refuses to open Word documents it doesn't understand. That's an improvement, albeit a frustrating one.

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