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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Of course Office 365 now gets along nicely with Windows 8.1, with tiles put where you'd expect. It enhances (or at least enables) touch and pen input. There's also much deeper integration with SkyDrive Pro, a standard part of all of the business versions of Office 365. (SkyDrive Pro isn't really related to SkyDrive, but an expansion of a SharePoint feature formerly called MySites.)

You'll also find an enormous array of security controls that scale from small companies up to large enterprise. These include the likes of centralized retention control in eDiscovery, sharing restrictions in SharePoint (and thus SkyDrive Pro), lock-down features in Office proper that limit the use of add-ons, Lync administration features, and remote administration of mobile devices, including the ability to change PINs and wipe lost or stolen devices.

The Office 365 effort is huge, complex, and continuous. If you want to watch Office 365 improvements as they happen in real time, keep an eye on the Office 365 Service Updates and Service Updates "wiki" page. There are hundreds of changes under way. For example, this update page for Office 365 Small Business and Small Business Pro links to many dozens of articles that cover recent changes in Office 365.

What's new in Google Apps

While you need a graduate degree in Office-ology to stay on top of the Office 365 changes, much less the options, Google Apps retains its svelte, pointed focus. Depending on your predilections and needs, its leanness may be its greatest selling point or its Achilles' heel. Google Apps hit the scene years before Office 365 was a glimmer in Ballmer's eye, and it continues to stand out as a straightforward workhorse. But it isn't fully compatible with Office documents, and it doesn't have Office 365's massive control infrastructure.

Google's developments in the past two and a half years span a wide range of improvements, including the addition of Google+ and Hangouts, a major Gmail redesign, admin alerts, and many places in between. However, several of those improvements were made to the apps themselves, not to the official "Google Apps" umbrella that binds the apps. For example, Google still doesn't have a Google Apps-style controlled environment for Google+. While a Google Apps admin can turn Google+ on or off as a whole, the admin can't control who's interacting with whom (yet).

Google has been criticized for not keeping up with the Joneses -- or the Offices -- in many areas, including security and admin control, unified communications, social networking, and document compatibility, always a sticking point. Google Apps doesn't have a "Facebook for the Enterprise," and many customers have no problem with that at all.

Google has a lengthy list of detailed improvements to Google Apps, on its Google Apps Updates blog. From sharing Google Docs files with someone who doesn't have a Google Account, to tips on converting to the new Google Groups interface, the blog lists hundreds of improvements and changes. To many users, the most important change to Google Apps in the past couple of years is the ability to download and save Gmail messages and Calendar items, which is rolling out just now. For enterprises, the mid-2012 launch of Google Apps Vault was a key addition. For an overview, check out Google's Vault FAQ.

Not so long ago, a major selling point for Microsoft solutions was the ubiquity of Office. Experience with Microsoft Office was expected by employers, and by the same token, employees expected to work with Word, Excel, Outlook, or PowerPoint in a new job. That's changing. The number of potential employees that actively use Gmail, for example, has never been greater. Some potential employees may find not having to use Microsoft Office applications a distinct employment incentive.

Privacy differences

One important consideration, when comparing Microsoft and Google products, has nothing to do with price or features. It has everything to do with privacy. Given recent revelations about our government snooping on anything that moves, the questions about corporate privacy and how companies such as Microsoft and Google will use your data have only become more pointed.

Google's privacy policy makes no bones about it: "We use the information we collect from all of our services to provide, maintain, protect and improve them, to develop new ones, and to protect Google and our users. We also use this information to offer you tailored content -- like giving you more relevant search results and ads." Yes, that means Google scans your mail and may even look at the contents of your files for information that's used to serve up ads. There's a more technical look in the Google Apps Security Whitepaper.

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