Review: 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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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 For example, Office 365 has licenses for individual users and packages that can be granted or withdrawn at any time, as shown in Figure 3.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.

Office 365 Assign Licenses
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, but Outlook) email, with all of Outlook's bells and whistles, just using a browser, can be a real eye-opener. See Figure 4.

Office 365 Outlook Web App
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.
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