Office 365 vs Google Apps: Microsoft brings Office 2016 to the Windows Store

Availability coincides with the release of the Surface Laptop

The choice of productivity suite is a critical decision for business because these are apps used by employees for core office work on a daily basis.

There are two titans of the tech industry vying for your business: Microsoft’s Office 365 and Google Apps for Work. These two companies have different philosophies for their productivity suites. Microsoft combines traditional desktop Office applications with browser-based versions of software such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, as well as offering a host of other services to Office 365 subscribers; Google Apps is almost a pure online play, offering the vast majority of its services via the web browser or net-connected apps.

Here, we’re going to examine the features and functionality of the apps in both packages, allowing your business to make an informed decision about which best meets your requirements.

Office 365 vs Google Apps: latest news

16/06/2017: Microsoft has launched the preview of Office 2016 in the Windows Store.

The launch coincides with the release of the new Windows 10 S-based Surface laptop, the first PC to be released running the operating system.

Microsoft said on its blog: "The full suite of Office apps in preview are currently available to download today with Office 365 in the Windows Store for Windows 10 S. On Surface Laptop, you can simply open the Start menu and click on any of the Office app icons like Word, Excel, or PowerPoint to launch the download from the Store".

Windows 10 S only runs Window Store apps, which means other applications such as Chrome or iTunes cannot be installed, so adding Office 2016 to the list of apps it can run potentially makes it more attractive for customers.

Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint 2016 became available in preview yesterday and will be available in Office 365 Personal bundles.

Customers who buy a Surface Laptop with Windows 10 S will receive one free year of Office 365 too. If you already have Office 365 Personal and buy a laptop, then you will get an extra nine months of subscription.

Office 2016 apps do not currently support Office 365 business plans but these should be coming in 2018.

03/03/2016: Google has just launched a new ‘User Hub’ allowing employees to quickly see and access their Google apps.

This is designed to encourage staff to use Google’s apps more frequently, as well as to show them what they can and can’t use.

As well as the apps that have been turned on for that user, the User Hub also shows software which has been approved by an admin, but not currently installed.

“This should encourage employees to use their enabled apps more often,” Google said in a blog post, “and to finally check out those apps they haven’t yet tried (especially the mobile versions, which will be easier to access).”

This also ties into the new templates recently released for Google Docs, Sheets and Slides. Many of them are specifically business-focused, including examples designed by Intuit’s QuickBooks, Reading Rainbow and more.

Email/Calendar

On most of Microsoft’s Office 365 plans, employees will have the option of using the desktop version of Outlook 2013 and/or a webmail version of Outlook. Outlook has been a business staple for decades, but it’s probably the Office app that’s most in need of an overhaul. It’s bloated, search isn’t as spritely as it is with Google’s Gmail, and it’s the least stable of all the Office applications in our experience.

However, Outlook offers features Google cannot match. The option to take notes in meetings (using OneNote) and have them permanently associated with the event in your diary is a bonus, making it easy to check agreed action points, for example. Finding free time slots (and even meeting rooms) for meetings with colleagues is easier with Outlook than Google Calendar. Outlook also offers more options for setting “rules” to automatically shuffle incoming messages to certain folders, for example.

The webmail version of Outlook is cleaner, and one that may be less intimidating for some employees. There are no Ribbon menus stuffed with icons – the focus is on reading and replying to messages, and search is snappy, with search terms highlighted in the returned results.

Familiarity and speed are the biggest strengths of Gmail. Employees will likely already have a personal Gmail account, and the pro version shares an almost identical design, without the adverts. Search is near instantaneous and integration with other Google services is neatly handled: for example, if someone sends you an email with a suggested date for a meeting, you can simply click on that date (which is underlined) and add the event to your calendar. Attachment handling is also smooth, with options to click for instant full-screen previews, edit in other Google Apps or save the file to Google Drive for later reference/sharing.

Gmail provides an instant, full-screen preview of documents attached to email

Having instant messaging built into the Gmail window is also a bonus. You can instantly see if colleagues are available, and a quick instant messaging session might avert the need for a prolonged chain of emails.

Word processing

The choice between Microsoft Word and Google Docs boils down to the complexity of the documents your staff are required to create.

Google Docs is fine for the basic task of putting words on a page, business letters and rudimentary report writing. There’s now an attractive library of fonts to choose from, the in-line spellcheck works perfectly well. The option to quickly search photo libraries for royalty free photography and insert them in your documents is brilliant too.

What Google Docs won’t do is create the kind of polished presentation that you would want for company brochures or external marketing materials. The document templates on offer are nowhere near as elegant as Word 2013’s and graphics handling is rudimentary. There’s no option to put frames or drop-shadows on photos, for instance, the drawing tools open in a separate pop-up window rather than on the page, and there’s no quick and easy way to colour alternate rows in tables. It still feels too much like a 1990s word processor.

More worryingly, Google Docs struggles with big, complex documents. Trying to open a graphics-laden, 70-page document with hundreds of tracked changes brought our browser crashing to its knees, time and again.

Google Docs couldn’t cope with a heavily formatted 70-page Word document in our tests

It certainly made the browser-based version of Word pause for thought, too, but after a few seconds, we could edit the document perfectly well in the browser, proving it wasn’t beyond the capabilities of an online office suite. Imagine the embarrassment of phoning a client, saying your word processor wasn’t capable of opening their documents. At the very least, you would need a desktop suite such as Libre Office as backup for handling complex files.

Google Docs used to have a huge advantage when it came to collaborating on documents, but now the online version of Word allows multiple people to edit the same document simultaneously, too. We found Word Online a little more sluggish than Google Docs in this regard, however, and the ability to chat with colleagues as you work in Docs is a big bonus.

Word Online has the language and method of "track changes" while Google Docs enables users to make edits permanent or "suggest" changes, enabling others to approve those suggested changes.

When it comes to dealing with other popular online services, though, Word 2013 wins again. Opening a file shared from Dropbox with Google Docs requires you to import the file into Google Drive, make your changes, and save a new version back down to Dropbox – an awkward faff that has all manner of versioning complications. There are third-party tools that can synchronise Dropbox and Google Drive, but you end up with multiple copies of the same files. Simply opening files from Dropbox, editing in Word and resaving is far less hassle – a key consideration if you have clients that regularly use Dropbox or similar online storage services.

Spreadsheets

Nobody who’s used to battering numbers into a spreadsheet will be in any doubt about Excel’s capabilities. It’s the industry standard for a reason and is probably the biggest single reason why Microsoft Office remains the default choice for most businesses. The addition of Excel Online to Office 365 subscriptions has merely strengthened Microsoft’s hand. It doesn’t have all the features of the desktop version, but it doesn’t mangle spreadsheets if there are features it can’t cope with, either. For example, there're no conditional formatting or sparklines available to Excel Online users, but if you edit a spreadsheet containing them, it adjusts the formatting or sparklines accordingly.

Excel Online may not offer features such as conditional formatting, but it will still support spreadsheets that already has it

Google Sheets remains a long way behind. Again, it’s perfectly capable of the basics, and unless someone sends you an Excel file stuffed to the gills with macros and advanced formatting, Sheets will likely open it and allow you to make sense of the figures. The auto-suggest when entering formulae has been improved in recent years, and the autofill works as expected (type “Monday, Tuesday” in successive columns and it will fill in the rest of the days of the week when you drag downwards, for example).

There are a couple if interesting features in as far as bringing data from other websites into a spreadsheet.Sheets allows the import of RSS feeds into a document. There are also functions such as GOOGLEFINANCE(), which extracts share information from Google Finance, and GOOGLETRANSLATE() to translate a cell's contents.

Yet, it lacks the real power tools. Pivot table support is still limited, plugins/integration for third-party business tools such as Sage are weaker or non-existent, the charting facilities are much poorer. Your finance department may find a way to work with Google Sheets, but they probably won’t thank you for it.

Presentations

As with the word processing and spreadsheet tools, it’s the sheer sophistication of PowerPoint that gives it the edge over Google Slides. PowerPoint not only offers a vastly wider selection of templates from which to build your slide decks, but has many that pack a visual punch, as opposed to the rather drab, old-fashioned 20 on offer from Google Slides.

Indeed, the whole range of visual effects available in PowerPoint is far superior. Videos and photos inserted into slides can easily be put into attractive frames with drop shadows, for instance, while Google Slides lets you do little more than slap an image/video onto a slide and adjust the colours. PowerPoint also has a far greater library of slide layouts, animations and transitions. Of course, many of these are frivolous – naff, even – but it’s far easier to create an impactful presentation in PowerPoint than it is with Google’s tools.

PowerPoint 2013’s presenter view gives you key prompts and a virtual laser pointer, among other features

The real clincher is the presentation tools. Attach your laptop to a projector or external screen, and PowerPoint 2013 automatically puts the laptop screen into presenter mode, showing you (but not the audience) presenter notes, forthcoming slides and a running stopwatch. It also provides access to pen tools that let you use your mouse/trackpad as a virtual laser pointer, draw around areas of the slides, or use a virtual highlighter pen to emphasise points. Google, on the other hand, merely gives you an awkward pop-up window displaying any speaker notes and tiny thumbnails of forthcoming slides.

There is no doubt Slides can be used to deliver a straightforward presentation, but the whole experience is worse for both audience and presenter.

Other apps and services

Office 365 and Google Apps come with a variety of ancillary apps and services that could prove valuable to a business. Many of Microsoft’s subscription plans include access to the company’s iPad apps for Word, PowerPoint and Excel, which are largely excellent – especially PowerPoint, which lets you deliver presentations from your tablet. The smartphone apps are less impressive, and only recently has Microsoft, with its Office 2016 productivity suite, had a more touch-friendly version of the applications for Windows desktops and tablets.

Word for iPad is a bonus for most Office 365 subscribers

Google has its own smartphone and tablet apps for Docs, Sheets and Slides too, but these are woefully underpowered in some instances. The Docs app for iPad, for instance, doesn’t even allow you to move or insert images in documents.

Many of Microsoft’s plans provide business-grade instant messaging and video conferencing via Skype for Business (formerly Lync) – a sensible move that will provide a more familiar interface for employees. Google builds instant messaging into Gmail and provides video conferences via the excellent Google Hangouts, which offer superb speaker detection that automatically puts whoever’s talking at the time in the main video window.

Inter-business social networking is also catered for by both. Microsoft offers businesses access to Yammer, which could effectively be used to replace a company’s intranet. Google, meanwhile, offers Groups for inter-company forum-like discussions and Google+, which combined with instant messaging, all feels like it needs pulling together into one, less confusing, integrated service.

We have to give a special shoutout to Microsoft’s OneNote software as well. It's an underrated part of the Office suite that’s excellent for taking notes in meetings and is one of the few Microsoft productivity apps to have decent touch versions for Windows and other tablets.

Pricing

When it comes to the brass tacks, we have to praise Google for the simplicity of its offering. It has only two tariffs:

- A £3.30 per user, per month deal (all prices excluding VAT) that offers all the apps and 30GB of online storage per user, or

- A £6.60 tariff offering unlimited storage and a selection of advanced features for IT administrators, including message retention policies, admin controls over users’ Google Drives and legal compliance features.

Microsoft has six different tariffs covering businesses and enterprises:

- At the bottom end it has an online-only offering – Office 365 Business Essentials – that seems designed purely to undercut Google’s base package. It costs £3.10 per user, per month but only gives access to the online versions of Word, PowerPoint etc, not the desktop software.

- For both desktop and online, you need to upgrade to Office 365 Business (£7) or Office 365 Business Premium (£7.80), the latter of which includes a 50GB email inbox, videoconferencing, Yammer and other features.

The two Business tariffs have a limit of 300 users. Larger firms will need to consider the various Enterprise offerings, which range from £5 to £14.70, depending on the feature set required. The most expensive tariff, Enterprise E3, includes everything in the Business Premium deal, plus features such as a corporate video portal, enterprise app management (Group Policy etc), and legal compliance safeguards.

Verdict

If the above review all seems fairly damning of Google Apps for Work, that wasn’t our intention. We know of plenty of businesses that operate on Google Apps and have done for some years. The online suite is not as powerful as Microsoft Office on the desktop, but then many businesses only ever used a tiny fraction of Office’s features anyway. Google Apps is a low-maintenance, lightweight productivity suite that requires companies to pay barely any thought to issues such as installation, maintenance and backup, a combination that will appeal to many.

Yet, for businesses that want an online-only suite, the similarly priced Office 365 Business Essentials must also come into the reckoning. Microsoft’s web apps have improved enormously in recent years and, in our tests, performance was better when dealing with large Word and Excel files. Its collaboration features might not be as strong as Google’s, but we suspect few businesses often require employees to be working on documents simultaneously.

Neither Google’s nor Microsoft’s own online apps come close to touching the power of Office 2013. It may not be that everyone in the company needs the full power of the desktop apps, and businesses could make a significant saving by migrating staff with limited needs to the online apps (especially in a hot-desking environment), but staff who spend significant time dealing with large documents, complex spreadsheets or delivering presentations will still find the full-blown apps more of a necessity than a luxury.

We feel most businesses will be best served by the combination of desktop software and online services that the more expensive Office 365 subscriptions offer.

Whichever path you choose, both offer 30-day trials to businesses, and we suggest that you, at least, participate in a trial deployment to check whether your chosen provider meets your company’s needs.

This article was first published on 15/01/2015. The last update was on 03/03/2016.

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