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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Future directions
Although Apple, Google, and Microsoft will no doubt disagree, it's not at all clear to me if online office suites have much of a future. They occupy a rather strange niche in the three companies' software lineups.

On the Microsoft side, Office 365 is the moneymaker. With Office for Windows, OS X, and iPad now a reality, it's a foregone conclusion that we'll see Office for Android -- not to mention the widely anticipated touch-first version of Office. In the past, Office Online has served as a surrogate for Office customers who want to go mobile. In the future, Microsoft will no doubt come up with native applications for nearly every platform. Where will that leave Office Online? Good question.

Apple has a very different approach. It's building iWork for iCloud to closely mimic the OS X and iPad versions of iWork -- to the point of choking off features in the older versions of iWork in order to present a more unified interface across all of its platforms. Heaven only knows if Apple will build native Windows, Android, or other versions of the iWork apps. One thing's for sure: Apple takes Office compatibility very seriously. As bandwidth increases and browsers get better, perhaps Apple will build out iWork for iCloud and not concern itself with native apps for non-Apple platforms.

Google takes yet another tack. The Google apps are going everywhere, compliments of Chrome and Google's attempt to turn a browser into an operating system. Google is testing the waters by implementing HTML5-based offline access, not only to Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, and the rest, but to other Chrome apps as well. At the same time, Google has announced Docs and Sheets for iOS and Android; it promises a Slides rendition as well. Right now, the native mobile apps, per InfoWorld's Galen Gruman, "mark a new low." Will they ever grow up to be comparable to their Google Offline brethren? All it takes is time and money.

It's fair to say that any of the three online office suites can support almost all office workers, almost all of the time. The sticking point will be the walled garden. If you're passing Word Online documents to someone running Word for Windows, for example, going through OneDrive is easy -- but every other route is hard. Google Drive behaves similarly, but without native desktop applications and with mobile applications that stink, so you're stuck on the Web anyway. Apple makes any kind of rational file manipulation stand-on-your-head-and-pat-your-belly difficult.

If a Web companion to desktop Office is what you seek, Office Online has the edge. That said, don't expect to view and edit Office docs in Office Online with nary a hiccup. While simple Office documents can go through a round trip to Office Online and escape unscathed, even moderately complicated documents can end up in shreds.

If you relax your requirement for desktop Office compatibility, both Apple and Google offer excellent alternatives. Apple's iWork for iCloud feels like it was designed to unify the concepts behind word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. The user interfaces are all remarkably similar, minimalist, and easy to follow. The design is at once elegant and accessible. And though Apple's online word processor and spreadsheet may not measure up to Microsoft's or Google's in features, for those who tend to build documents rich in visual flourishes, iWork for iCloud brings more tools to bear.

By contrast, Google's Docs, Sheets, and Slides feel like they've been cobbled together from spare parts -- much like Office 2003. They cover a whole lot of ground, but in a meandering way. Taken together, though, they comprise the most feature-rich online productivity suite. The word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation apps are all highly functional. The same can't be said for Office Online.

Cloud office suites at a glance

 Apple iWork for iCloudGoogle DriveMicrosoft Office Online
Word processingElegant and easy to use. Not as powerful as Google Docs or Word Online, but beats both at creating visually rich documents.May have more raw features than Word Online, but many (e.g. tables, text boxes, pictures, shapes) are oddly rudimentary or limited in options.Overall the most complete online word processor, but still lacks many features (e.g. math functions in tables, macros, text boxes, shapes) found in desktop Word.
SpreadsheetsAlso lags in features, but leads in elegance. Makes it much easier to create spreadsheets with visual impact.Programmable, which may beat all the other considerations combined.Extensive feature set includes pivot tables, pivot charts, and almost all of the functions you know and love. But not yet on a par with desktop Excel.
PresentationsBy far the best presentations app. Almost as capable as Keynote for Mac and easier to use than desktop PowerPoint.Not as powerful as Keynote for iCloud, but miles ahead of PowerPoint Online. Offers good text formatting and image handling along with plenty of transitions and animations.Extremely limited. Might be useful for creating a simple presentation, or starting one to be finished in desktop PowerPoint.
File handlingWalled garden with the highest walls. No client for Windows or Mac means files must be uploaded through the browser. Folders can contain either Pages, Numbers, or Keynote docs, not multiple types.Walled garden with sync clients for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS.Walled garden with good hooks into Windows and a sync client for Mac, Android, iOS, Windows Phone.

This story, "Review: Microsoft Office Online vs. Apple iWork for iCloud vs. Google Drive," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in Windows, applications, and cloud computing at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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