Face-Off: Google Apps vs. Office 365

The cloud is all the rage, and for productivity tools, Google and Microsoft are the biggest players. You tell us who's best.

Dozens of reviewers from around the world have compared Google Apps for Business to Microsoft Office 365. I read my fair share of these shootouts in preparation for this article.

But instead of having one person in a small lab set up and test the suites, I reached out to actual customers: you, the Redmond reader. Some 20 of you told us in detail about your Google and Microsoft online productivity experiences.

One thing became clear in all of my reader interviews: Google Apps can really stir emotions -- happy and hostile in seemingly equal measure.

"We've used it for more than two years and never had downtime. It has integrated chat and video -- with excellent real-time quality. Collaboration is so simple. We've had no problems setting up MX records like Microsoft Exchange, and there's generous storage space," says reader Zailano, who continues effusing praise. "Searching for e-mails is super fast and accurate; importing files and contact lists is a breeze, and it's spam-free without [the user] having to pay a premium for anti-spam tools," he says. The best part? "It's cheap -- practically free."

Google Not Good-le
Some highly technical shops have struggled on the Google path. "We tried Google Apps for our small custom software development business, with nine people. Everyone is a developer here, so I figured it would be a cinch. It was a big mistake," complains Shaune R. Stark, president of Information Technologies Inc. "There was no support of any kind, slow performance, and buggy or missing features or documentation. We quickly went scurrying back to Office and Exchange. I shouldn't have to spend my time scrounging forums for answers to questions about a product I'm paying for -- at least not for the first 30 days or so."

JC Warren's organization uses Google Apps for collaboration and sharing documents, mostly job postings. And he's none too happy. "This experience has so soured me on Google that I find myself accepting less relevant hits from Bing and I'm switching my personal e-mail to Hotmail -- and I've had a Gmail account since early beta days," says Warren.

A Microsoft Office fan, Warren finds the Google suite sorely lacking in functionality. When asked about the feature set, Warren replies: "There's a feature set? Formatting options are significantly less than Word -- any version -- and I'd hate to have to figure out spreadsheet formulas."

The word processor "seems like Notepad on steroids," Warren continues. "I'll keep using Office 2010 until they pry it from my cold, dead fingers."

Two other things bug Warren. His organization has "had lots of reports of corrupted formatting," and performance is abysmal. It's not always slow -- sometimes it's very slow.

Nor is Warren impressed with Google's approach to training. "Google provided links to YouTube videos. We had previously blacklisted YouTube but had to open it up for this," Warren recalls. Warren's end-user coworkers mostly share his attitude. "The vast majority of reports are negative. Some people seem to be getting used to it, but they aren't the power users," Warren says.

Reader Randall Palmer shares Warren's ire. "We use Google Apps. We were forced to change by administration," he explains. "No one likes it. Matter of fact, everyone hates it." Everyone wants Outlook back, says Palmer, who works at a public school department.

Let's dive deeper into the details of Google Apps and Office 365.

Feeling Free
Google Apps for Business might be cheap, but it still costs money -- $5 per month or $50 per year. The same suite is totally free for nonprofit and educational institutions. That's led to a fair number of successful installs, such as the Birthingway College of Midwifery. "I use Google Apps for Education because it's free and it's an excellent product. However, I don't think I would've recommended it if we had to pay for it," says Corey Branstrom, technical coordinator at the small not-for-profit organization.

"Since setting it up just over a year ago for our internal administrative use, we've expanded it to the entire student population," Branstrom explains. "The document and calendaring features have transformed how we operate for the better and communication with our student population has improved dramatically. Every issue I've had with it -- so far -- has been fixed in a few months with a seamless upgrade." Branstrom also uses plain old Google Apps for his freelance consulting business.

Based on his personal experience, Branstrom is no Office 365 fan. "I tried to set up Office 365 for a client only to have their system fail, repeatedly, to recognize DNS settings and therefore refused to accept e-mail for the domain," he says. "I had to migrate the client to Google Apps. The entire process cost us money, headaches and lost e-mails. Sorry, Microsoft, I tried."

Ken Bucci uses Google at a charity organization to store documents and maintain contacts. "I use Google Apps for a nonprofit organization that I run," Bucci says. "Why? It's completely free for me to use the base applications. I'd much rather use Office 365, but we like to see the funds collected by our organization spent on our organization's goals," he explains.

"[Google Apps] is awesome!" he exclaims. "Not so much overkill like Office 2010. We really don't need all the bells and whistles." The install was problem-free and took only minutes. File compatibility out of the gate has been good, and virtually no end-user training was needed.

Joseph Johnson, president of the nonprofit soccer booster club RHS Soccer Boosters Inc., uses Google Apps and Facebook to help players, parents, coaches and the club better communicate. "The best part of the package is that the apps are free to everyone who creates an account," Johnson says. "Being a non-profit organization in a tough economic environment means we have zero dollars to spend on improving communications and very little to spend on everything else. How can you beat free?"

From Google to Microsoft
Redmond Windows Insider columnist Greg Shields recently moved his company to Office 365 -- and off Google. "Office 365 has been a refreshing change over Google Apps," Shields says. "It's admittedly still a bit rough around the edges. Merely finding some of its key features is sometimes a challenge. But we've so far benefited from the migration. Having moved from Google Apps for Business to Office 365, we love the familiar Exchange interface and really enjoy the full-fidelity features of Outlook and Lync -- which we didn't have before."

Not all is so joyful, even for a highly technical customer like Shields, a Microsoft MVP. "SharePoint struck us as a challenge, albeit one that we knew we were getting into," he explains. "The challenge isn't that SharePoint doesn't have features; rather, it almost has too many. Figuring out the ones we need and how to best make use of them has required an unexpected effort."

While some complain about the varying personalities of the different Google applications, a similar knock can be made against Office 365. "If there's one issue that stands out, it's the somewhat dissociated nature of Office 365's different capabilities," Shields says. "Different functionalities are found at very different URLs, which are sometimes difficult to remember. I look forward to the day when Microsoft better unifies each functionality into an interface that feels more like a cohesive whole. Until then: user training."

Rishi Khanna is an expert in both Office 365 and Google Apps, and is now on the side of Redmond. "We weren't sure at first if Microsoft was going to create a competing product for the cloud since they were a little behind in jumping on it. We used Google Apps for almost two years before we moved to BPOS [Business Productivity Online Suite] in 2009 and most recently upgraded ourselves to Office 365," says Khanna, who's with IT services provider ISHIR in Dallas. "The most important reason we moved away from Google was the outages that we experienced. We felt the Google Web interface wasn't conducive to a business environment. Having come from using Microsoft Exchange for 10 years and being very comfortable with Outlook, it was a no-brainer," Khanna adds.

Despite the bad Google gamble, Khanna thinks the cloud still comes up aces. "For small to midsize businesses, the main reason to move to the cloud is the convenience and limited or no support required to maintain an enterprise-level solution. Microsoft does a great job of delivering a package of tools that companies can use for e-mail, word processing, Web meetings, calendars, document management and other unified services," he says. "The Google product, even though it came to market in 2006, has been bare bones in most of its features for the longest time. It still is not where we want it to be."

File Fidelity
If you're interested in compatibility with files generated by Microsoft software, then Microsoft software is a better bet, readers report. Take Word. While not perfect, files and templates taken from traditional versions of Word into Office 365 are fairly trouble-free. The only real rub is the Web version of Word doesn't support the more sophisticated formatting features. If you opt for Office Professional Plus, you have access to both the local and cloud-based offering.

On the flip side, Google users have had mixed experiences with file fidelity. Johnson, of RHS Soccer Boosters, has had generally good luck. "I've seen no significant issues with supported documents that can't be opened. I do use certain other applications, like Publisher, that can't be rendered or edited in Google Docs," Johnson says. "I go back and forth between Excel all the time. I've never seen issues with Word documents. Also, I've never tested the compatibility of the presentation app," he adds.

Whatever the level of compatibility, it's handy to have apps in the cloud and on your own hard drive. "I use Microsoft Office at home as well as work, but having the capability of opening the Google files in Office or not is handy. It's great for dealing with non-homogeneous systems that the various parents may be running," Johnson says.

Variable Performance
Like any cloud service, performance is based on a complex set of factors -- the services provider infrastructure, its outgoing network links, speed of the Internet path, your broadband or WAN connection, and speed of your client device. Given all that, it's little wonder that performance can vary widely. Reader Doug McDowell has nothing but good things to say about the speed of Office 365. "It's great, much better than on-premises Exchange and SharePoint hosted in a datacenter," he says.

"I'm pleased with the performance. There have been some brief outages on Microsoft's service, but I didn't notice them," says Phil Isensee, a semi-retired computer consultant with four decades of IT work under his belt. "My primary e-mail is via POP3 from other services, so it continues to get delivered. I just don't have synchronization happening between machines. If my primary e-mail was via Office 365, I might have been miffed -- but I've had outages with my ISP and my other e-mail providers, too. And they haven't been proactive about providing a refund for outages, as Microsoft has done."

Johnson is similarly pleased with Google's service. "The speed is great for a Web-based application. Rendering, even on mobile devices, is quick. I assume this is due to it not having the bloat of Office," he says.

Setup and Configuration
McDowell has two Office 365 accounts, one for his corporate job and the other for personal e-mail and archiving. So far, so good. "I love it. It's Exchange and SharePoint but with better performance and cheaper than other hosting options," he says.

Implementation was a breeze. "It took a few hours of configuration, some shepherding of mailbox migrations and user reconfiguration," he explains.

"I'm migrating -- automatically with the nifty mail migration interface -- about 33GB of current and archived mail from Gmail to Office 365 Exchange Plan 2, the one with a 25GB mailbox plus gratuitous archiving. I've been archiving personal and business mail to Gmail via IMAP for more than a year, and I've been really pleased with the concept and Android integration," McDowell adds.

McDowell is clearly not a Google fan. "Gmail e-mail formatting stinks and, quite frankly, I think Google is slimy about privacy, so as I say, 'I'm getting clean!'" he says. "Plus, I prefer the Outlook-Exchange user experience and performance."

Semi-retiree Isensee also migrated to Office 365 with relative ease. "The migration process from the .pst was to create the new .ost [local Exchange store] and then hand-copy folder-by-folder to it. I have everything running how I wish it would. It's amazing for the price," says Isensee, who pays $6 a month for the small business plan.

Warren is going in the opposite direction. His current company is looking to make a move to Google, something that clearly gives him angina. "We're in the process of a pilot to migrate to Gmail and Google Apps with the intent of rolling them out to the enterprise. Our IT department has been on Gmail for about a month," he explains.

The Microsoft IT pro isn't pleased. "I'm responsible for Group Policy settings and lately tasked with installation configuration. What a nightmare. The list of issues is long from an IT perspective, security being huge -- management appears to have decided that it's really not all that important any longer," Warren says. "Considering the money we've spent on trying to get Chrome configured, deployed, administered, repaired and so on -- Google insists that no other browser can fully express the wonderfulness of Google Apps and Gmail -- it will take years and years before we could possibly see a positive ROI."

Isensee had an easy move from on-premises Exchange to the cloud. To get Office 365 fully up and running, all Isensee had to do was migrate data and set up Outlook on the relevant machines, which he says was "quite easy" with the data moving from Exchange quickly.

Google Support
A Web company such as Google doesn't have the same support infrastructure as Microsoft -- and it shows. "Google's support response is totally lame," Warren complains. "They've basically told us in many instances that things are just the way they are and we should get over it. They definitely aren't set up to provide support to enterprise customers, and the engineers we've had on-site often seem confused as to why a company would be concerned about things like controlling the upgrade of a browser to ensure it doesn't break business-critical apps and functionality."

He continues: "Group Policy administration is a joke. They provide a small subset of settings that may or may not be interpreted by the browser properly and may or may not do what you want; may or may not have the settings off in one or two places; and may or may not be completely corrupt, requiring you to keep old, broken ADMX templates handy to put back into the Central Store after the new, supposedly fixed template fails to function at all. From my perspective, Google in the enterprise is so not ready for prime time."

Feature Sets
Many software vendors are willing soldiers in the features wars. Not Google. Google Apps is more about collaboration, lower capital expense, easier administration and not being tied to a device. That works for some but fails for others. "The Google applications are great for collaboration. The feature set is full, as most people don't use the full feature set of desktop-based applications -- I don't, for 80 percent of my work," RHS Soccer Boosters' Johnson says. "However, it becomes much easier to use Excel when I need to do a pivot table. But after doing that on my licensed software, I can post it to Google Docs and share it with our mobile devices and other group members. I still use Excel when I want to do heavy macros or pivot tables. The interface can use a little work. I prefer to use Excel on the desktop because of some of the idiosyncrasies of a Web-based application, such as how dropdowns work."

Warren has the opposite view. "I've opened some attached docs and spreadsheets from e-mails and wondered why anyone would bother with them," he laments. "I keep thinking we've been caught in a time warp and all technology has reverted to the early '90s or something. Schedule Plus was easier to use and had more functionality than Gmail."

"Most of the users are on board with us and willing to create an account if they don't have one. Some users require a little hand-holding, especially in accessing documents and editing sign-up sheets. Overall, it has been very positive," Johnson says.

"I hope to continue to grow our adoption. I plan to expand the use of groups instead of just distribution lists, and get some of the benefits of threaded conversations," he adds.

Mixed Security Reviews
Security is a critical concern, and which offering is safer is largely a matter of opinion. "Google Security works well. Groups make it easy to set up security and rights to collections. We have a limited number of groups right now and only use it for securing our documents," Johnson says.

Google user Warren isn't impressed. "Google doesn't do security and apparently thinks that throwing out unsubstantiated buzzwords is enough to deflect criticism," he says. "I'm serious. We ask about security and they say either, 'Trust us, it's secure,' or, 'Why would you be concerned about [fill in the blank]?'"

Microsoft is also the source of debate. "As long as Microsoft puts out word processing, spreadsheet and database software full of security holes, I'll never use its cloud services. I can't trust them on my local PC -- why would I trust my 1,000-plus end-user documents, spreadsheets and other tidbits to Microsoft's cloud? Talk about a security nightmare!" argues reader Charlie J.

McDowell has more confidence in Microsoft. "I feel it's as or more secure than past solutions. One thing I really like is the security and availability of Exchange Online with advanced archiving, which uses an online .pst file. And it's a lot more secure online than a local .pst, which can be copied, hacked or corrupted," McDowell says.

That doesn't mean McDowell is entirely head over heels for Office 365 security. He's not a fan of Forefront Online Protection for Exchange. "Microsoft needs to find something a little simpler for personal and small business accounts to filter spam," he says. "When I ran all my personal accounts through Gmail, I had virtually no spam; now I'm deluged with spam because I haven't figured out and configured Forefront yet. What a bother!"

Caring About Sharing
There are many reasons to use cloud apps: less administration, access to files from nearly anywhere. And then there's collaboration. While Google Docs, which lets multiple users work on a file simultaneously, set the early pace, Office 365, with its checkout model, is a real player.

"We've started using the document library to collaborate on documents," says Vid Boudolf of Charleston, S.C. "Usually it's just two people sharing, so we don't worry much about overwriting. It's nice to be able to pull the document locally and open it directly with Word or PowerPoint, and when it saves, it goes right back to the online storage. We like to post a check-in comment on what's the next step. As a business owner, I feel like all my documents are there and owned by me, regardless of whether an employee comes or goes."

Weighing Cloud Storage
One of the selling points of cloud apps is the convenience of cloud storage. Here, users are pretty happy. "File storage for pictures and documents that aren't covered in Google Apps is easy to deal with. I use Syncdocs [a cloud backup service for Google Apps] to synchronize local documents to the various folders -- called collections. This includes all files in the folders and means that, whether I'm on the desktop or on mobile, I'm working on the latest and greatest," Johnson says.

Office 365 user Isensee is likewise impressed with his chosen tool. "Because I have synchronized .osts on multiple machines, I'm not doing anything other than my normal daily backups of files. I used to do convoluted shadow copies of .psts and move them around for backup. Exchange synchronization changed all of that," he explains.

What's Not to Dislike?
No software is perfect, and Google and Microsoft cloud apps both come in for their share of knocks. "I have a few pet peeves," says Johnson. He doesn't like Gmail's threaded view. "I like the e-mails grouped that way, but sometimes they're a pain when on a phone," he says. Nor is the Docs spreadsheet tool perfect. "Sometimes the movement between cells is flaky to the point that I've closed the tab and reopened it -- I've never had to shut down Internet Explorer entirely … yet," he says.

Finally, Docs folders are a bit rough. "Collections have helped tremendously, but act more like an attribute or group instead of a rule. By this, I mean all collections are a group attribute assigned to a document instead of a true folder location -- this can cause problems with concurrency," Johnson says.

Keeping Files in Sync
Isensee has used Outlook for years but resisted moving to a hosted Exchange solution. Now he's on Office 365, and he's a fan. One nice touch: Office had two short outages resulting in two 50 percent refunds. Isensee says he never knew the service was down.

He initially had a simple need -- to sync files between a bunch of PCs. "I had used a variety of not-so-good solutions built on freeware. There were always a few problems: getting clean synchronization, synchronizing Outlook Notes folders and subfolders, Web access with using LogMeIn. I finally went to Office 365 because of the price. It clearly is the least-expensive hosted Exchange solution," Isensee says. "Google Docs doesn't handle everything in Outlook, and Office Web Apps isn't Outlook. I use Office 365 as the solution with three existing POP3 services for $6 per month. I've found it reliable enough and it solves all of the things I used to do to copy my .psts around. With, of course, complete Outlook folder synchronization."

Google Apps also has suitable file sync options. "We synchronize my home computer and our treasurer's home computer to the file storage location automatically. That way whether we use Excel or Google for spreadsheets, we sync all of our documents in near-real time," Johnson says. He adds: "The synchronization between Google and between apps, mail and social sites is good and getting better." A consultant, Johnson "would have no problem suggesting its use to a small company."

The Coolness Factor
So what's the coolest thing about Office 365? "It just works. I regained proper e-mail formatting and correct calendar item handling, things that miserably fell short with Gmail," McDowell says.

And what's cool about Google? "I love that I can be working on a document at the same time as another member and I can immediately see the changes they're making, even if I'm using my phone and they're at their desktop, and whether we're across town or across the United States," Johnson says.

The Case for Office 365
In the end, serious IT pros I heard from prefer Microsoft. "Office 365 is a better fit for us than Google Apps, but Google Apps does meet a need for some. My concern, though, is regarding decisions based on 'free.' If people are looking for free then they can also look at Office Web Apps on Hotmail; it works well. But basing decisions simply on cost is not an option for us, nor something we feel is right," says one reader. "We put our money where we see long-term viability and where we see that an organization's business model and beliefs closely align with our own. Microsoft is like a glacier -- slow moving, slow to change, sometimes vexing -- but it does make consistent progress, and is mostly predictable. That's very important for long-term tech planning. They generate their revenue on the sales and services of actual products, rather than on ads, and so are actually building something."

For McDowell, it's not just about technology. "Google and Microsoft are going to stay pretty close in features and price for the foreseeable future, so it comes down to whom I want to do business with … and my preference is Microsoft," he says.


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