Review: Microsoft Office Online vs. Apple iWork for iCloud vs. Google Drive

Online word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation apps can be surprisingly useful, or surprisingly lame, and not even Microsoft aces Office document compatibility

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Like Microsoft's OneDrive, Google Drive integrates easily with Windows Explorer: Download and install a local client. You can even make Google Drive -- or Dropbox, for that matter -- your default save location in the desktop version of Office 2013. Unfortunately, you can't do that in Office Online.

My two big disappointments with Google Drive: First, Google has been at this game a long time, and the apps have grown in a gangly way, much like desktop Office. You won't find any of the elegance or unifying logic in the Google Drive apps that you'll find in iWork for iCloud (or Office for iPad, for that matter). That said, if you know Office 2003 with its pre-Ribbon menus, you'll feel right at home with Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides.

Second, I'm still not comfortable with Google's unabashed approach of scanning all of my documents in pursuit of ad clicks. Unlike some companies (and governments) I could mention, Google is honest about it. But it still makes me queasy.

Scoring the cloud productivity suites
There is nothing so personal as a personal productivity suite. Thus, assuredly, your results will vary. If your organization needs an online productivity program that won't mangle Microsoft Office documents, the compatibility score may outweigh all other considerations. If you're going to cloud productivity apps to save money, then value rules supreme. But be aware of the fact that we don't know, long term, if Apple will charge for its suite.

Google Docs is a decent word processor, but Pages for iCloud is superior in many ways. Word Online comes with many features that aren't included in Pages for iCloud, but in some respects -- for example, handling pictures, text boxes, tables -- Pages for iCloud runs rings around Word Online. The ability to create and run scripts in Google Docs means it has been -- and will continue to be -- extended in many useful ways. None of the editors come close to the depth of features in Word 2013, nor do they approach Apple's Pages for OS X.

In the spreadsheet realm, we're seeing an intense race to determine which features people want most and to get those features pushed out the door. Overall, I tend to favor Google Sheets, not because it has a broader set of features than Excel Online (it doesn't), but because one feature -- programmability -- can trump them all. Your results may well vary. If you rely on Excel formulas and features such as pivot tables, you'll undoubtedly side with Excel.

For presentations, Keynote for iCloud easily outpaces the competition, with Google Slides pulling up a solid second. PowerPoint is undoubtedly the weakest of all the online apps. It seems that the designers of PowerPoint Online looked at Keynote for iCloud and said, "OK, we give up."

All nine apps are changing, very quickly. In recent weeks, Apple announced that Pages could now export in ePub format, Numbers could export to CSV, and Keynote has added a setting to show or hide slide numbers. All iWork for iCloud apps now support up to 100 people collaborating in a document at the same time. There are 200 new fonts, more color options, and new interactive charts.

Also in recent weeks, Google announced it had new antitheft account verification, and it had completed the rollout of direct image editing (anticipated in my Google Drive review). Microsoft doesn't have the hell-bent-for-leather update pace of the other two, but in April the official Office Blog talked about a bunch of improvements in Excel Online.

If a particular app doesn't have a feature you need, check back again in a week or two.

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