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10 comparisons between Google Apps and Office 365

Google Apps and Office 365 are the leading contenders in the cloud-based business application space. Scott Matteson compares the two products.

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TechRepublic ran an article back in July titled "Google Apps v. Office 365 summary: Which is better?" The article was the finale of a series discussing in detail the various features of the two cloud services.

Since then I've done some further checking and found some interesting tidbits about Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365 which may be of use to those considering these options, or who are merely interested in the subject of cloud-based applications.

Although this is the "Google in the Enterprise" blog, my role here isn't to exhort the benefits of Google Apps over Office 365. In truth, I find them both excellent products which will probably work just fine for most companies, but there are a few nuances here and there between them which are worth analysis.

Key points

With that in mind, here are ten key points about the two products to help keep you informed.

1. Both offer a similar feature set

When it comes to the programs most office workers use on a daily basis, both Google Apps and Office 365 each offer fulfilling counterparts with plenty of collaborative capabilities.

Table A

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In some respects they seem like twins. However, I have twin nephews, and while they may look alike and, to some measure, behave alike, under the surface they have some very different attributes. Some people love the simplicity of Gmail while others prefer the familiarity of Outlook. OneNote is a superior note taking program to Keep due to more advanced capabilities and the way it integrates with other programs. Corporate customers may be committed to SharePoint if they have architected specific features to accompany or enhance it. Google Hangouts are a breeze to get started on Google+ but there seems to be no such Lync connectivity with So.cl (which, frankly, many people have probably never heard of).

Furthermore, although Office 365 does not include Visio or Project in any plan, Microsoft provides these programs for online users as part of a paid subscription. Not everyone needs these tools, but as an IT guy who relies on Visio almost every day I would greatly suffer the loss of this program from my arsenal. True, you can get Google Apps add-ons for project management in the Google Apps Marketplace and Google Docs has a drawing option which can give you Visio-like capabilities, but those may not meet the specs of those who are committed to Project or Visio, or who have invested lots of time in files created by these programs.

2. Office 365 has various versions and prices for different user counts

Google Apps has a quick and easy pricing plan for their standard Google Apps for Business package: $5 per user per month or $50 per user per year (there is an advanced plan as well which I'll discuss next). This applies whether you're a company of three or thirty thousand people.

In contrast, Office 365 has a multitude of plans (six as of September, 2013) which can be both good and bad since it provides flexibility but also involves some complexity to figure out the best choice. Microsoft's small business plans are geared towards 25 users or less and provide a good scale of features for $5 or $12.50 per user per month (or $60/$150 per year). A midsize business plan for 300 users or less comes in at $15 per user per month, and there are hosted email/enterprise plans which cost $4, $8 or $20 per user per month and include different options.

3. Privacy agreements are different

The difference between the privacy policies used by the two companies may be the deal-breaker for some customers, so perhaps I should have made this #1! Microsoft's privacy policy says they will not scan your data or provide information to third parties. On the other hand Google's Privacy Policy states they can use information they collect from you for advertising purposes. In both cases the government can compel them to provide your data if required. You've got to decide which one fits your company requirements and/or level of comfort.

4. Online storage details vary

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When it comes to storage capacity, Office 365 gives users 50GB of space in Outlook and 25GB in Skydrive. Google Apps provides 30GB of space which is spread among Gmail, Drive and Picasa. By comparison, both companies will give freebies; Google provides 15GB of drive space and Microsoft will give you 7GB. Both vendors will sell you additional space if needed whether you're a free or a business user.

Both Drive and Skydrive integrate with related products by each vendor, and each offers online document readers so you can view all kinds of files right in the browser without having to download and open them. Conversely, neither storage platform offers centralized control of document sharing, which is curious. Google offers a better search function tied into Drive; there is no full-text search in Skydrive. Microsoft backs up your data; Google Apps does not do so by default (but you can recover previous versions of files).

Back in May I wrote about some Google Drive problems which produced synchronization headaches that ruled out the use of Google Drive for me. I haven't had the opportunity to circle around and test it out to see if Google has resolved the issue, but I will say that I tested Skydrive at the same time and found absolutely no problems with it.

5. Both provide dashboards showing the status of online services

If you're going to saddle up with a cloud provider for your company's applications, you're going to have to get up-to-the-minute status updates for outages so you can keep tabs on how your environment is working.

Microsoft provides a Service Health Dashboard which shows the status of Microsoft Online Services, but it is only available to paying customers meaning you need to buy before you try. Google provides an Apps Status Dashboard to the public which shows operational statistics for Google Services as well as Analytics, Maps, Voice and Blogger. I was able to view information covering the past two months including a Gmail outage on 8/16, for instance. If you're already an Office 365 subscriber it's not a big deal since you'll have access to the same information from Microsoft which Google provides to anyone, but it's worth noting that if you're still on the fence with your wallet in your pocket Microsoft outage data won't be available (though reports of Office and Google outages reach the public ears anyway, of course).

6. Both offer a form of email archiving/e-discovery

Email archiving is a popular feature. I never even heard of e-discovery until a few years ago, but it has exploded into a popular (or at the very least necessary) process as of late. Many companies have a need for one or both features and these are provided by Google and Microsoft via their "Google Apps for Vault" and "Office 365 Enterprise E3" plans.

Google Apps for Vault is the advanced plan I referred to above and costs $10 per user per month (no discount for a year's subscription is provided). Microsoft's Office 365 Enterprise E3 plan offers the same for $20 per user per month, but you also get hosted voicemail support and business intelligence features which may justify the $10 increase over Google's plan.  

7. Office 365 provides desktop apps

Some Office 365 plans include desktop apps such as Word, Excel, etc. to help round off the suite, giving customers both the thick clients and the browser-based versions. Google Apps is entirely browser-based so there is no such desktop program counterpart. However, you can use Docs, Sheets and Slides offline in Chrome, although changes need to be made in the Admin Console and on the user side to permit this. You can also install an add-on for Chrome to let you work in Gmail while offline.

8. Excel may be better than Sheets for certain users

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There is a perception among many that Google Sheets can't compare to the powerful features and formulas of Microsoft Excel. For companies which live by (and in) Excel, this can be a serious consideration, especially if they rely on Excel gurus with years of training and experience (though of course any good professional can transfer their experience with one product to that of a similar product, so long as the options are present).

David Politis of Bettercloud raised some good points about Google Sheets functionality in his TechRepublic column last year titled "Five Google Spreadsheet features to help kick your Excel addiction."  Mr. Politis stated: "Google Spreadsheets is often cast in a negative light, with many claiming the tool isn't as powerful as its primary competitor, Excel… however, several updates made in the past few months combined with the Google Spreadsheets' hundreds of functions and ability to derive information from other Google products like Search and Finance have leveled the playing field."

However, there are still some features offered by Excel which companies might need to rely on. For instance, in-depth detailed formulas might not carry over well to Sheets. Furthermore, Google limits Sheets to 400,000 cells, compared with 17 billion in Excel.

9. There's an interesting tradeoff on unused features vs. familiarity

This is more of a philosophical comparison, but I think it will hold valid for many readers. Office 365 has the advantage for plenty of users who have been familiar with Word, Excel and the rest of the gang for years; there is less of a learning curve than with Google Apps if the latter represents a brand new experience.

However, it's also true that Office is notorious for being loaded with complex, unused features which can cause confusion, so the familiarity many will embrace also comes with something of a price, especially if companies are paying for advanced packages not all employees will use. By contrast, Google Apps programs are fairly easy to learn and intuitive, but may feel too awkward for those who are hard-coded to work in Office.

10. Both have app marketplaces

The beauty of cloud-based environments is that they can be customized depending on company needs, new advances and administrator skill sets. With that in mind, both Google and Microsoft offer add-ons through a centralized marketplace. The Microsoft Office 365 Marketplace is quite comparable to the Google Apps Marketplace and both feature professional services as well as applications you can use to enhance your platform.

In Conclusion

There are plenty of other features and categories which are similar or different between Google Apps and Office 365, of course - mobile apps and connectivity, document sharing, instant messenger tie-ins, and dozens of other topics. The field is always changing as each vendor updates and improves their services, so if you're in the market for online productivity apps I recommend you keep an eye on the Google Apps and Office 365 product pages to stay as current as possible - and read independent reviews as often as possible.

About

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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