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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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.

That said, Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides have nary a fraction of the features offered in the desktop versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. You would never want to put together a moderately complex document in Google Docs, for example. Just getting the headers and footers to work right would drive you nuts. Then again, complicated headers and footers in Word aren't a walk in the park, either.

The Office programs are well established and mature. Google Apps are scrappy and improving. Case in point: pivot tables. While the Google implementation of pivot tables in Sheets isn't as capable (or complicated) as Microsoft's, Google hits the high points very nicely.

Google is also playing catch-up in other areas your business might care about. Google Apps Script is a JavaScript variant designed to build macros for the Google Apps. The Scripts run in the cloud, not on your machine. There's an active, if young, developers' site to help get started. Microsoft Office, on the other hand, exposes an enormous amount of information -- a huge API -- for custom development using .Net (or even Visual Basic for Applications). Those programs run on the local machine. There's a huge ecosystem of programmers, books, and code for Office-related development, as well as help for would-be Office add-on programmers. Office has a lot more power and flexibility on the PC, while Google runs rings around the Web.

Back when every single desktop needed a copy of Office (or at least when the powers-that-be assumed every desktop should be Office-equipped), forgoing Office apps on most PCs was unthinkable. That's changing. Now, it would be worthwhile to take a hard look at how badly your organization needs a chicken in every pot.

Office 365 vs. Google Apps: Ease-of-use

Once again we're back to Queen Elizabeth 2 vs. the Sloop Google. It all depends on what you want to do.

If you're accustomed to using Outlook on the desktop, the Outlook Web App will look more or less familiar, whereas Gmail may turn your world inside out.

If your users are accustomed to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, the Office 365 choices don't change a thing -- quite literally a zero learning curve. On the other hand, if your people are using Google Docs at home already or if they've come to loathe Office's more frustrating aspects, perhaps the much simpler Google Docs approach will fit the bill.

Over time, Gmail and Outlook.com have come to look and act much alike. Although there are purists who would argue the supremacy of one over the other, on balance, I find it just as easy (or as hard!) to wean people from desktop Outlook and onto either online service. If your transition to Office 365 includes moving to Outlook.com, you're in for some user pushback. On the other hand, if most of your users already have online email accounts, going to either Outlook.com or Gmail should be a relative piece of cake.

Assuming you come from an Outlook shop, and you're going to continue using Outlook on the desktop, Office 365 will fit like an old glove. Since many (if not most) office workers these days are familiar with online email systems, the learning curve for Gmail shouldn't be daunting. Getting used to Google Apps might present a few challenges, but most will find it quite straightforward, particularly if they're inured to the complexity of Office.

Office 365 vs. Google Apps: Administration

Administering an Office 365 installation can be demanding, precisely because Office 365 offers a wide array of options. Many admins who aren't used to handling Exchange, Lync, or SharePoint will need experienced help to get the beast up and running. Administering Google Apps for Business is comparatively easy because the choices are straightforward and well laid out.

Office 365 has so many nooks and crannies, as well as so many tools at hand, that someone new to the product would be well advised to look into everything on offer -- that means training, lots of time with Google (er, Bing), participation in one or more of the online fora, and likely consultation with other folks who have been around the block a few times.

When evaluating the administrative burden of both products, the edge goes to Google Apps. While Microsoft has struck an excellent balance between capability and ease of administration with a very polished and extensive set of admin tools, Office 365 is a much broader, more encompassing product that is plainly more difficult to manage.

Office 365 vs. Google Apps: Value

Google Apps runs $50 per user per year, with no contract required. Adding Google Apps Vault for archiving and compliance brings the price up to $120. The other Google products that I mention in the Features section are all free, all the time.

As I explained in the complicated discussion at the beginning of this article, Office 365 with Office 2013 licenses vary between $150 and $240 per year, per head.

Google Apps is an excellent value, period -- it does a lot, for a pittance. Office 365's value is entirely locked up in whether your company wants to rent the latest version of Office Professional Plus. If you need the Office desktop productivity suite and can move from your current Software Assurance plan, then Office 365 is every bit as good a value as Google Apps.

Office 365 vs. Google Apps: The bottom line

The two packages are neck-and-neck in the ratings, but they're completely different in real life. Google Apps is small and easily administered; it covers the high points; and it doesn't try to reach into the more obscure corners of your company or organization.

Office 365, on the other hand, offers the best (and most complex) enterprise support in the business. I'm continually amazed at how well Microsoft has built out Office 365, rolling feature upon feature into the mix, yet keeping the whole package remarkably stable, usable, and manageable.

For large enterprises with strict data controls and complex, diverse operations, Office 365 has no equal. For any organization with less-stringent requirements and a willingness to part with companywide Office document compatibility, Google Apps offers a good, inexpensive, and reliable alternative.

If you're looking at Office 365 and Google Apps for your small business and you don't have a pressing need for Office doc compatibility or a tied-down security requirement, pull out your calculator (or your Google Sheet) and do the math. On the Google side, you have $50 per year per person, plus the price of the necessary copies of Office (rent or buy). On the Microsoft side, Office 365 will run $150 per person per year for up to 25 users, or $180 per person for up to 300 users -- $240 per seat to get all of the bells and whistles.

I bet you'll find that, for most small and midsize businesses, Google Apps is considerably cheaper -- but it may not do what you need to do. There's a reason why Office 365 is doing well in large enterprises.

This story, "Review: Microsoft Office 365 vs. Google Apps," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in cloud computing at InfoWorld.com. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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This story, "Microsoft Office 365 vs. Google Apps" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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