Microsoft Office 365 vs Google Apps

Now that Office 365 has launched, how do the two leading web-based Office suites compare?

Background

The expensive Microsoft Office suite of desktop applications defines the standards for email, documents, spreadsheets and presentations. In the last few years Google has offered a set of web-based competitors – Google Apps – at a fraction of the cost. Now MS has now responded with its own web-based apps at a similarly low price level – Office 365.

To complicate things (Microsoft’s speciality)

  • Office 365 is designed to work with the traditional Office desktop apps – and you need the latter for the collaborative tools.
  • the collaborative tools were available to companies with SharePoint 2010, Office 2010 and the ability to run these expensive, complex products – Office 365 makes these enterprise products available to small & mid-sized companies.
  • for our purposes we’re talking about Office 365 as a hosted service that you rent, but you can still get the Office 365 effect by running SharePoint on your own servers
  • the Office 365 suite is more than described here, but for sanity we’ll focus on the core of it

So we’re comparing the new MS hybrid desktop/web apps with Google’s pure web apps.

The reasons to look at these products (compared to the desktop Office) are

  • collaboration, allowing you to work at the same time as colleagues on documents
  • access from any web browser, allowing you to work on documents from almost any computer you can get your hands on
  • freedom from VPNs and other clumsy security hassles between mobile workers and documents
  • lower costs, mainly thanks to Google setting an aggressively low price to pull the rug from under MS’s biggest earner

In my experience, collaboration is a huge advance and web access is nice to have; the drawback of many web apps is offline use.

Collaboration

Collaborative apps let you review a spreadsheet with your Australian office, make changes on the fly and see the effects. It lets several people work on a long report at once, or discuss edits over the phone. In daily use, they just make documents behave in an easier, more fluid way between teams.

The MS and Google collaborative models are fundamentally different:

  • For Word and PowerPoint, MS uses a check-out / check-in approach. The only time two people can simultaneously work on the same Word doc is when both are using desktop Word rather than editing in browsers. Even then, they see others’ changes only when the other has manually saved and they then save. At that point, the user sees any conflicts where both have edited the same text – and get offered some quite intimidating manual steps to resolve the edits.
  • For Excel, MS uses real-time collaboration
  • Google uses real-time collaboration – you see almost instantly what the other users are writing.

My winner is Google. For most users who aren’t worried about reviewing every change made by other users this approach is transparent, seamless and so advanced as to seem magical.

For spreadsheets they’re equivalent, but for documents and presentations the MS approach is ugly – best suited to lawyers and other disciplined pros, difficult to use but capable of very fine control. (Google recently rewrote its doc editor from scratch and discussed the fiendish complexity of real-time text editing; I guess that MS hasn’t cracked it yet.)

Features and capabilities

This should be easy: Office 365 is far ahead of Google. Office famously has more features than any human can count. Further, don’t try running a huge dataset on Google Apps, or a complex financial analysis – a browser is no match for a desktop app (not yet – Google has therefore built its own browser and is working on making it as powerful as a desktop app…).

Except… I believe we spend too much time working the features at the expense of the core content. The greatest documents were written longhand and published in plain text; the best financial models fit on napkins. Google forces simplicity on users and you may find this an advantage.

My winner is Office 365, if you insist on frippery.

Document and knowledge management

Again, two very different approaches

  • MS uses SharePoint, a highly customisable environment that stores files but also behaves like a web site with pages and functionality, so you can create an intranet around your documents – and more. As a result of its capabilities, it’s quite daunting and confusing to use.
  • Google’s document manager is simple and intuitive: it stores files in folders.

If you can afford a specialist SharePoint manager or consultancy, and significant user training, you may find you can bend it to your needs – but first try Google Apps, possibly in conjunction with Google Sites, in case it’s sufficient.

One major caveat: Google Apps has a longstanding bug that makes it tricky to share folders with others, a fairly fundamental problem.

On that basis alone, my winner is Microsoft. When it’s fixed, Google.

Email

One could go on for a while on the differences between Gmail and Outlook/Exchange, but both are highly capable. One caution: if you’re switching either way, train your users first – we’ve seen them rebel against the new way of doing things (and that’s just our techies…).

Both winners.

Offline use

‘Offline’ meaning that you aren’t in the office and don’t have an internet connection.

Easy: neither of them work when you don’t have an internet connection. Sure, the Office desktop apps work, but you won’t have access to your files. If you really need to work offline – frequent fliers, etc – then try Dropbox or ask your IT department for “offline files”.

Conclusion

At my company we moved from the old desktop Office to Google 18 months ago. Collaborative documents have been transformative. Gmail has a few passionate adherents but the rest had plugged it into Outlook within a week.

Google Apps works. It’s simple, at the cost of being simplistic, it’s intuitive, and it has genuine real-time collaboration. If you can deal with the folder sharing bug, I highly recommend it.

Office 365 is highly capable on paper, offering the best of web and desktop apps, but it’s new and not all there, it’s unintuitive and clunky to use, and it’s more expensive than Google Apps (but not decisively so).

If you’re a startup, go Google – you don’t have time or money for complications. If you’re already using Office, have a look at Google Apps – if it’s not right then wait for Office 365 to mature, you don’t want to invest in getting SharePoint set up until you know it’s the platform for you.

End.

* Sorry Zoho, I know you were there first and have a broader range of apps but, given the significant advantages that both MS and Google bring to this game, it’s hard to justify looking at anyone else.

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Ben Gladstone is an entrepreneur and CEO and founder of IT services firm, Conosco. Ben did a stint with Coopers & Lybrand, and then co-founded Obongo, a Silicon Valley software company, leading the team that invented, patented and developed the technology for managing online passwords and credit card data. Then in frustration at the lack of high quality computer support for small businesses, he set up Conosco in the mid noughties.

  • Yusuke Asai

    To add to this list, I have been using Centralpoint by
    Oxcyon. I was a bit weary of starting with this CMS at first because I have
    used various CMS’s from Google, Microsoft Sharepoint, Huddle and etc. My
    initial reaction to Centralpoint was that it was going to be just another CMS
    (content management system), but I was wrong. It exceeded my expectations,
    greatly. One thing I noticed when I use Google Apps and Sharepoint was that
    navigation was a mess! I’m not saying that Google Apps and Sharepoint is the
    only CMS with bad navigation, but it’s just an example. I usually adapt to
    programs easily, but I was rather confused by most CMS programs. With
    Centralpoint, I don’t have any issues with navigation and changing things
    around. As far as storing records, it has a powerful document management
    system, which is full blown archival. Oxcyon also doesn’t charge per seat, per
    server or by the amount of data usage. Overall, navigation and proper document

    management system were 2 of my largest problems with past
    CMS’s I have experienced. Centralpoint is painless and

    efficient. I would highly
    recommend it.Centralpoint has many great feature that are user friendly like
    Microsoft office. You can setup policies and administrative rights. The best
    thing about it is it just feels natural.