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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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 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, you're in for some user pushback. On the other hand, if most of your users already have online email accounts, going to either 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.

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