Office 365 vs. Google Apps: The InfoWorld review

With Office 365 now available in final form, here's what you need to know to decide if Office 365 or Google Apps (or neither) is right for your organization

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Of course, that hardly scratches the surface of all of the features in Exchange Server 2010, SharePoint Server 2010, and Lync 2010. Microsoft offers a series of detailed service descriptions specifically for the Office 365 server components on its website.

Google Apps offers some comparable features, but in a different way, and it doesn't try to touch all of the Office 365 bases:

  • Although Gmail looks and behaves quite differently from Outlook Web Access (see Figure 4), it provides all of the major OWA functions, some of the minor ones, and adds a couple of unique features, including a thread-prioritizing scheme, plus a host of add-ons via Google Labs. Google Chat -- with video -- is directly accessible through Gmail.
  • Google Calendars can be controlled by the administrator, but only to restrict the extent that information is shared outside of the domain. Users have control over who can see their calendars inside the domain. Contacts are handled inside Gmail in a way that's not nearly as robust as in Outlook.
  • Google Apps doesn't have a telephone component per se, but the free Google Voice has many of the features you would expect from a VoIP system -- a single forwarding number, unlimited free domestic calls, call screening and blocking, SMSes, and conference calls -- in addition to transcribed notifications from inbound voice calls.
  • Google Apps doesn't have fancy, customized Team Sites, but Google does have a feature called Cloud Connect that provides sharing and collaboration tools for Microsoft Office applications -- Word, Excel, and PowerPoint -- and works on files stored in Google Docs. Multiple users can edit the same file simultaneously. Last week, Google announced an extension to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint that lets you open and save documents directly in Google Docs. Also, integration with Box.Net brings many SharePoint features to Google Docs.
  • Google Groups offers a few features that are vaguely reminiscent of SharePoint capabilities, including online forums, managed mailing lists, and group-accessible storage.
Gmail doesn't look or behave like Outlook Web Access, and some people find the change disconcerting.
Figure 4: Gmail doesn't look or behave like Outlook Web Access, and some people find the change disconcerting.

As long as you have Outlook installed on your PC, working on email without an Internet connection presents no difficulties for Office 365. But with Gmail, you have to run Google Sync to download your messages to your PC before you lose your Internet connection, then run it again to bring everything back once you're plugged back into the grid.

If you don't plan on paying for Microsoft Office on every desktop, the relative benefits of the two packages changes considerably. It's much easier to use Office 365 with the (free) Office Web Apps, and to use Google Apps for Business with the (free) online Google Docs, so any evaluation of the relative merits of Office 365 and Google Apps has to take into account the features in Office Web Apps vs. the online Google Docs.

That's problematic, as the online versions of Word, Excel, OneNote, and PowerPoint -- as well as Google's online word processor, spreadsheet, and slideshow programs -- are changing constantly. For example, Office Web Apps added a rint function to Excel just last month.

On balance, Office 365 gets a 9 for features, and Google Apps a 7 -- assuming you will work in an environment with some version of Microsoft Office on every desktop.

Ease-of-use: Familiarity breeds comfort
When you're talking about ease-of-use from the end-user standpoint, Microsoft has an unfair advantage. When users encounter an Office alternative, they're not likely to appreciate some upstart's attempt to reinvent the UI (Microsoft has done enough of that already).

The burden is on Google Apps to create an inviting user experience, and for the most part users will find it a snap to learn their way around the core apps and get productive -- and with fewer features, there's less to learn. But there's one major hurdle: Gmail. We can debate the relative merits of Outlook (or OWA) and Gmail forever, but for the typical user who has invested months of blood, sweat, and tears on learning Outlook, the transition to Gmail can be traumatic.

The Gmail interface is completely different, whereas the latest version of Outlook Web Access (see Figure 3) pretty closely resembles Outlook on the desktop. Gmail (see Figure 4) packs a lot more information into a smaller area and puts the most common functions in completely different places. Advanced users may prefer the Gmail layout, but most others will prefer the devil they know.

To its credit, Google offers an easily customized Web page to help users make the transition from Outlook to Google Apps (the Google Apps Learning Center covers the same material in a different way).

In my experience, the second biggest ease-of-use problem is coherence. As you can see from the features list, Microsoft has packaged all of its services under one big umbrella. The various components work similarly -- although by no means identically. Google's apps, by contrast, consist of a hodgepodge of programs and services, with different pedigrees, names, operating procedures, restrictions, licensing, and packaging. All of that leads to user confusion, such as: "Should I use Google Voice or Google Talk or Google Chat, or just call you on Gmail?"

Both companies need to improve the integration of disparate pieces of their packages. I dread to think how Microsoft will integrate Skype into its current offerings.

I give Microsoft an 8 for ease-of-use, assuming you come from an Outlook shop. Primarily because of the learning curve for Gmail and the other Google Apps and the fragmentation of Google offerings, I give Google a 7. Remember, this rating applies to end-users -- not to administrators.

Administration: Complexity vs. simplicity
I wrote about administration complexity with Office 365 in my Office 365 beta preview. InfoWorld's J. Peter Bruzzese also had problems with the Office 365 beta. In short, the admin sequences are confusing, with many blind alleys that are impossible to escape. As best as I can tell, those problems persist in the shipping Office 365 admin panels.

Also, if you use Active Directory, you face some serious challenges synchronizing with Office 365 (see Microsoft's Active Directory synchronization road map). Adding your domain to Office 365 can be tricky. Microsoft does, however, have a tool to help with changing to single sign-on, making it much easier for your users to access Office 365 using Active Directory Federation Services.

By contrast, the Google Apps admin options are sparse but well put together. The re-entrant wizard makes a big difference. Google doesn't touch Active Directory or any of the other complex server functions.

I give Office 365 a 7 for its admin tools and Google Apps a 9, but note that Google's job is much, much simpler. There just isn't that much a Google Apps admin has to do -- or can do, depending on how you look at it.

Value: Investment vs. impulse buy
Google Apps runs $5 per user per month, with no contract required. If you want to pay for a year in advance, it's $50 a head. If you have 10 or fewer email addresses to shepherd, you can get the basic Google Apps package free. The other Google products that I mention in the Features section are all free, all the time.

In the Microsoft tradition, Office 365 pricing is complex, even Byzantine. You can see some of the details in Microsoft's Office 365 Fact Sheet (Word file), but to see all of the options, you need to wade through the Subscription Plans site. At the risk of oversimplifying, prices range from $10 per user per month for bare-bones support with no Office license to $27 per user per month for the works.

I give Google a 9 for value. Office 365's value depends in no small part on whether you need or want to include Office Professional Plus 2010 licenses with the bundle. Assuming your company already has seat licenses for Office, I give Microsoft a 7, but if Microsoft offers you a rebate or discount for your current licenses, the equation changes considerably.

Reliability: The uptime factor
One final point didn't make it into the numerical comparison charts: reliability. Whereas Google has been offering Google Apps in various versions since 2006, Microsoft is trying to present Office 365 as a completely new system. Certainly one of the reasons for Microsoft's fresh new face is that 365's predecessor, BPOS, has achieved no small amount of notoriety for its reliability record -- or lack thereof.

Last year, BPOS crashed for protracted periods of time on Aug. 23, Sept. 3, and Sept. 7. In response, Microsoft apologized, starting a new service called the Microsoft Online Service Health Dashboard that's supposed to keep customers advised on outages. Two problems: The Dashboard is visible only to paying BPOS customers, and it doesn't work when you need it the most.

BPOS went down at least three times last month. During those three outages, the Health Dashboard was useless. Worse than useless: It reported no problems, while there clearly were extensive outages. On June 22 -- yes, just last week -- BPOS went down again. At the same time, the Health Dashboard stopped working altogether.

In response to the latest debacle, the MSOnline group tweeted, "O365 should provide a more stable service. It is built from ground up new and reports and expectations are very good." There was no mention of the lapses with the Health Dashboard.

Google Apps outages, by contrast, are generally infrequent and short-lived. Even the tiniest disruption of service reliably appears on the Apps Status Dashboard.

It remains to be seen if Microsoft's reliability will improve with this all-new system.

Conclusion: Get onto my cloud
Right now, if your company is seriously looking at cloud services for your productivity applications, you have at least three general choices.

First, you might consider using one of the many hosted service providers. With Office 365 and Google Apps for Business hogging the spotlight, customers may forget that hosted servers and services are still running strong. Many hosted service providers offer individualized support and products, either in competition with or in support of Office 365 -- and several of them don't hesitate to recommend and help with Google Apps, if the situation's right. Don't overlook the little guys. They work for you, not the giant companies.

Second, you can sign up for Google Apps for Business. It's relatively easy to sign up and test Google Apps, in no small part because there are few admin functions.

Third, you can contact Microsoft and ask how much it will cost to move to Office 365. That isn't a trivial question, particularly if you already have licenses for any of the server products or for Office 2010. Software Assurance furthers complicate matters, and if you're in the Home Use Program, better get your accountant in on the discussion.

When you look at the bucks and the benefits, there's one factor that will hit you right across the pocketbook: Microsoft has priced Office 365 so that if you need Office 2010 licenses it isn't outrageously expensive -- at least, not by Microsoft standards. Microsoft doesn't publish Volume License prices, but the Office 365 "E3" option, which includes a full license for Office 2010 Pro Plus, runs $288 per person per year.

As far as being able to reduce admin headcount, if you move your servers to Microsoft's cloud, that's a very contentious issue. InfoWorld's J. Peter Bruzzese published a detailed look at the question back in March and came to the conclusion that Exchange admins, in particular, need to broaden their skills.

Nonetheless, in comparison with a move to Google Apps, the bottom line is that Microsoft's cloud represents a relatively modest transition from existing technologies. Google's cloud, by contrast, amounts to a complete break from the past. For companies that seek the benefits of the cloud without dramatic change, Office 365 is the obvious choice. For companies willing to abandon familiar features and technologies for much lower cost and administrative overhead, Google has a solution ready and waiting.

It's a whole new ball game. Whether your company decides to go with Office 365, Google Apps, or a hosted service provider -- even if you keep all of your servers locked in-house or decide that you don't need a server at all -- there are many more options today than there were a month ago. The cloud beckons.

This story, "Office 365 vs. Google Apps: The InfoWorld review," 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.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Ease of use (25.0%)
Setup (10.0%)
Features (40.0%)
Administration (15.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Office 365 8.0 7.0 9.0 7.0 7.0 8.1
Google Apps for Business 7.0 9.0 7.0 9.0 9.0 7.7
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