Smackdown: Office 365 vs. G Suite collaboration

Google’s G Suite has long mastered document collaboration. But now Microsoft Office has come on strong. Is it enough?

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Office 365 vs. G Suite: Meeting collaboration

Skype for Business didn’t use to work reliably outside of Windows, but earlier this year Microsoft fixed that. Google Hangouts for Business used to work poorly and confusingly, but it too has improved, if not to the same degree as Skype for Business has. 

If you want to manage communications and accounts centrally, as most larger organizations do, you’ll prefer the Skype for Business approach. If you prefer more ad hoc communications, as many smaller businesses do, you’ll prefer Hangouts for Business. But beware the pro-Windows bias in Skype for Business—it will trip up multiplatform organizations and give users a reason to use third-party tools, sanctioned or not, like, GoToMeeting, or WebEx,

Initiating communications. Skype for Business works decently for direct communications across users’ choice of text, voice, and video. What holds it back is the user interface. To contact anyone, you need to search by name. Once you find a person, you can add him or her to your favorites by right-clicking on his or her icon—but not if you’re using a mobile device.

Initiating a conversation is easy: Click the appropriate button (Chat, Voice, or Video) in the app. You can add more people by clicking the People icon on a computer or pressing and holding the person’s name on a mobile device.

Hangouts for Business also relies on searching for people’s names to initiate communications. However, there is no favorites capability, only a list of frequent contacts and—the method Google expects you to use—the ability to create groups of people whose chats you drop in and out of. It’s clearly a college-student mentality and shows why the app is called Hangouts. Advantage: Skype for Business.

Screen sharing. Skype for Business lets only Windows and MacOS users share their screens, though any Skype for Business client app can see the shared screens. Keep that desktop-biased limitation in mind if your iPad-carrying salespeople want to show their screens. Users also need to be presenters to share their screens, a role that the meeting organizer can delegate to users as needed.

In Skype for Business, only Windows users can share PowerPoint and other app screens (Macs can share only their whole screen).

Hangouts for Business also allows screen sharing if you’re conducting a video chat (which is how Hangout conducts meetings as well). But you may not realize that at first because the screen-sharing controls are buried in the More (…) menu during a video session. Hangouts also limits screen sharing to desktop browsers and Chromebooks. As with Skype for Business, Hangout users on iOS and Android can see shared screens, but not share their own screen. Advantage: None.

Video and audio chats. The video sessions in both Skype for Business and Hangouts for Business work well, depending on the quality of your internet connection. Skype for Business lets Windows users—but no one else—save recordings of video sessions. Audio chats also work nicely in both systems. Advantage: None.

Text chats. Skype for Business lets you direct-message users in a primitive chat system. But the chat sessions don’t replicate across all your devices, so you can’t follow a thread over time as you can in a real chat system. However, if Conversation History is enabled for your account, you will see a Conversation History folder in your Exchange email that contains all of your chats.

Hangouts also allows text chats among participants, but unlike Skype for Business its chat history is available on all devices you’re logged into. Advantage: Hangouts for Business.

Meetings. Despite some cross-platform deficits, Skype for Business works well for scheduled meetings. But those meetings must be set up via a Microsoft Outlook client with its Skype Meeting feature enabled for each meeting. Well, unless you use Windows: PC users can initiate meetings directly from the Skype for Business app. 

Depending on your Office 365 admin’s settings, meeting participants may need to be set as presenters (which authorizes them to share their screens) in the meeting invitation before it is sent. You can do that from the Windows or Mac versions of Outlook when setting up the meeting.

If you forget, a Windows-based host can grant an attendee presenter rights during the meeting by right-clicking his or her name and choosing Promote to Presenter from the contextual menu that appears. On the Mac, click the People icon, then right-click the desired presenter from the attendee list to choose Promote to presenter.

Presenters can do the same to enable others to be presenters, such as to “go around the room” in showing their screens. But remember that the host must be using a Windows PC or Mac to do this; the iOS and Android versions of Skype for Business don’t support screen sharing and thus don’t have the control to enable someone else to present. 

Hangouts for Business doesn’t really have meetings in the traditional sense. Instead, it sets up all meetings as video conversations—which most employees would prefer not to be the case, in my experience. (At InfoWorld, we continue to maintain the distinction between meetings and video chats in the same way that tools like Skype for Business, GoToMeeting, WebEx, and have long done.)

You schedule Hangouts for Business “meetings” via Google Calendar, but note that active participants are limited to 25 people, which is a tenth of what Skype for Business allows. If you don’t actually schedule a meeting in advance, you can initiate a video call and invite people individually to it.

Hangouts lets external users join video calls from their browser, if they have a meeting invite. (They don’t need a Google account.) They can also use the Hangouts app.

Hangouts works better than Skype for Business for meetings and video chats when you’re working with contractors and other outsiders; Skype for Business requires that they too have Skype for Business set up or otherwise limits them to phone dial-in. You can see Google’s open college mentality versus Microsoft’s closed IT mentality in action here.

Both Skype for Business and Hangouts for Business are unfinished in their meeting support, but at least Skype for Business is trying to support traditional business online meetings. Advantage: Skype for Business.

Phone support. Skype for Business assumes everyone is using the Skype for Business client, and all communications happen in it by default. You can pay a monthly fee to assign PSTN capabilities (from Microsoft or other supported voice provider) to specific individuals, so they can invite phone users to the meetings they host. There’s also a higher-cost plan for Skype for Business that acts like a digital phone system, so users can both place and receive calls in the Skype for Business app via the standard phone network.

On the Mac, beware a bug in Outlook (where you must set up your Skype for Business meetings) that can derail phone meetings. A Skype meeting invite sent from Outlook on the Mac won’t include the dial-in information, so be sure to use an iPad, Windows PC, or Android device to schedule your meetings. Or you might try Microsoft’s recommended one-time workaround: Exit Outlook, open the Terminal, and enter defaults delete OnlineMeeting into the command line and press Enter. 

In contrast to Skype for Business, Hangouts for Business doesn’t assume that everyone is using the native client. For example, Hangouts users can dial other people’s regular phones if they have a Google Voice account or let people dial into Hangouts on their device. But users pay by the minute for such calls, and each person needs his or her own Google Voice account (and billing). iOS users get this capability if they have a Google Voice account set up and the Google Voice app installed. On Android and in Windows browsers, you also need to install the Hangouts Dialer app to get this Google Voice integration. MacOS users need to install a browser plugin when prompted.

Voice calling in Hangouts can be done without IT contracting a voice provider, but the user-by-user approach of Google Voice also means you can’t count on people being able to use phones. People can’t join meetings in Hangouts via a phone either. Advantage: Skype for Business.

Office 365 vs. G Suite: The verdict

For collaboration needs, Office 365 wins the competition—but not nearly as decisively as it wins in our productivity smackdown.

For document sharing, Office 365 and G Suite are closely matched, but Office 365 suffers from an inability to support simultaneous editing from its native apps. Office 365 provides more controls, but at the price of greater complexity for both users and admins. G Suite is easier to use when it comes to document sharing, and if G Suite’s productivity features meet your needs, that ease will give it the edge.

On the communications front, Office 365’s Skype for Business outmaneuvers G Suite’s Hangouts for Business in several key areas: better support for both app and phone voice communications, a more sensible approach to meetings, and a lack of bias toward video communications.

Office 365 is a better tool for communications than G Suite, a reality that when coupled with its productivity strengths swings the decision to Office 365 for most companies. Microsoft is finally getting the whole picture, whereas Google’s bias to college-style collaboration gets in the way of work use.

But let’s be clear: Office 365 is OK—not great—at collaboration, with more holes than it should have. It beats G Suite mainly because G Suite’s focus is more small business than corporate.

G Suite costs less than Office 365. You pay a mere $5 per user per month for the basic G Suite business package, which has a lot in it: the G Suite productivity apps, Gmail, Google Drive, Hangouts, and device management. The price is $10 per month for the most feature-rich G Suite package, which adds e-discovery, logging, and other enterprise-class management features.

But Office 365 doesn’t cost much more, especially when you consider the greater capabilities available in the Office productivity apps. The basic Office business plan costs $10 per user per month for the Office apps alone—no bargain—but the $15 full package includes the Office productivity apps, Exchange, SharePoint, OneDrive, Teams, and Skype for Business. If you pay annually rather than monthly, the cost drops to $8.25 and $12.50 per user per month, respectively.

Office 365’s enterprise licensing costs depend on which other cloud services you get from Microsoft. The E3 plan costs $20 per user per month, billed annually, and provides e-discovery, data loss prevention, and other security features, as well as unlimited email storage for archives and hosted voicemail; the ability to host meetings with dial-in access is available on a per-user basis but costs extra. The E5 plan is $35 per use per month, also billed annually, and adds phone dial-in for all users’ meetings, cloud-based call management, analytics tools, and extra security capabilities.

Google also has enterprise plans whose prices vary based on more services such as digital loss prevention and third-party integrations. The company does not provide list prices for its enterprise plans.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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