Dumping Microsoft Office for Google Apps? Test them first

At first glance, Google Apps is attractive in its simplicity and low cost. But dig deeper to see if you're getting what you expect

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Early this year, InfoWorld's Woody Leonhard did a solid comparison of Microsoft Office 365 vs. Google Apps wherein he likened Office 365 to a cruise ship and Google Apps to a sailboat in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, InfoWorld's Galen Gruman's review of mobile office productivity suites strongly criticize Google's mobile versions of Apps for being very weak compared to Microsoft Office (and Apple iWork). Although they offered interesting reads, I felt the discussions were moot, because it was obvious that Office 365 had completely cornered the productivity market.

Or has it?

This week, I was conversing with the IT admin for a company with 3,000 users. The company was considering moving its on-premises email environment to Google Apps. I was surprised initially, especially because the company is not a school system or nonprofit, which are the most common Google Apps adopters due to cost reasons and lack of IT. Thus, I decided to take a fresh look at what Google is offering.

The Google Apps for Work (aka Business) product suite offers a variety of browser-based tools geared toward communication and collaboration for the user, plus administrative elements for IT management. Google breaks the suite into four categories:

  • Communicate: Gmail for email, Hangouts for voice and video calls, Calendar for personal and team scheduling, and Google+ for social networking
  • Store: Drive for online cloud storage to store, share, and sync across devices
  • Collaborate: Docs for word processing, Sheets for spreadsheets, Forms for online surveys and forms, Slides for presentations, and Sites for team website creation
  • Manage: Admin for business controls and security and Vault for archiving and e-discovery

On the surface, it looks like Google has all the bases covered, although from a usability perspective I find the collaborative tools to be clunky. However, that’s my impression of all online applications (Microsoft's Office Online apps included) -- I prefer to work on an installed application if available.

Many Google Apps offerings have “good enough” features, but they may not have exactly what you’re looking for compared to Office 365, especially on the admin side (that is, the control over these features). Granted, administering Office 365 gets very complex if you plan on jumping into the Exchange Admin Center or SharePoint Admin Center, even if the initial setup is easy in the Office 365 admin dashboard.

Also, Google's pricing has none of the complexity of Microsoft's: You pay $5 per user per month for the basic package and $10 per user per month for all the bells and whistles (including Vault archiving and unlimited storage).

For some, the best part of Google's suite is user experience. As one person told me, "The Gmail interface is far more user-friendly and less corporate for end-users, who after all are the real consumers of the technology.” Maybe -- if you’re an enterprise user who has been working with the Office suite through the years, there is zero learning curve in moving to Office 365.

It used to be privacy concerns offered a strong argument against Google Apps adoption. Google scanned all emails in Gmail accounts to determine what paid ads to present to users. In its ads, Microsoft used to crow it didn't do that, but Microsoft overstated the case -- at least for business users. Google Apps provided an admin tool to turn off this scanning for ad delivery, and earlier this year Google said it no longer scanned business email at all and that ads would be removed.

For me, what matters above all is functionality. Office 365 provides a cornucopia of features for both users and admins, a selection unmatched by Google Apps. Microsoft's tools are also more polished.

If you’re already running a Microsoft shop, a move to Office 365 is the logical progression. But for some organizations, the simplicity (both visually and administratively) of Google Apps, combined with the simple, inexpensive licenses, adds up to a legitimate draw for smaller organizations.

Even those legitimately tempted by Google Apps should make sure it does what you need it to do. Give it a real test first.

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