The leading cloud-hosted office productivity/collaboration suites are Google Apps and Microsoft's Office 365. Both offer similar hosted email and calendaring options, web-based document editing plus cloud-based storage — and, for business users, the ability to communicate and work collaboratively.
However, there are also major differences between the two suites, so we decided to evaluate each in turn to discover how easy it might be for a business used to desktop productivity tools (such as Microsoft Office) to make the move to the cloud. Here's how we got on.
Simple fixed licence regardless of deployment size
Extensive browser/device support
Everything done from a browser
Users may need to revert to Office for complex documents
Affordable, feature-rich and easy to use, Google Apps for Business ticks the majority of boxes when it comes to abolishing desktop dependence. However, power users may not be able to abandon Office entirely.
Switching to Google Apps is both quick and easy, with just the one subscription plan to choose from, priced at £3.30 per user per month — or £33/user/year (£2.75/user/month) if you commit to an annual contract — regardless of who you are or what you want to do. Note that, in the UK, if you provide a VAT number you won't be charged VAT, but are advised to include the tax liability when making a return. In US money, the prices are $5/user/month, or $50/user/year ($4.17/user/month) on an annual contract.
For this one fixed subscription you get access to the entire suite of Google applications, including Gmail with a 25GB inbox along with Google Calendar plus Google Docs for word processing, Sheets and Slides. You also get 5GB of Google Drive cloud storage per user plus shared workspaces in the guise of Google Sites — easy-to-build websites that can be put to all manner of purposes — with 10GB of storage for uploaded files.
Users can be added to and removed from the parent account as required and you can purchase additional Google Drive storage as required. You can also use your own domain name rather than the Google-hosted alternative with a simple automated service to set this up.
Of course you won't want everyone to have the same rights, so access to applications, sharing privileges and other options can be centrally administered, with this and other management tasks achieved through an straightforward browser interface — much like that used throughout the Google Apps suite.
A browser, in fact, is all you really need to use Google Apps and you can use just about any one you like. Chrome is an obvious choice and a must-have if you want offline access to documents, but it's far from essential. We had no problems with either Firefox or Internet Explorer on the desktop, and encountered few issues on tablets or smartphones. Indeed, one of the big selling points of Google Apps is how easy it is to access regardless of what you happen to be using — Windows PC, Apple Mac, Chromebook, Android or Apple iOS device.
Where available, custom apps for consumer versions of Google's cloud services (such as Drive) can also be used with the business product and third-party applications purchased from the Google Apps Marketplace to further enhance the service.
Living with Google Apps
Like many long-time users of Microsoft's desktop products, I had a few concerns about losing my Office comfort blanket. However, the switch to Google's way of working didn't take long and was pretty painless.
The fact that I had used Google Drive and other cloud storage services before helped, plus I knew I would have to convert from Office to Google format in order to edit online. However, rather than converting when uploading documents I was variously prompted to do so when hitting the edit button or it was done for me automatically — an important consideration as unconverted files ate into the 5GB storage allowance, which was very quickly used up. It was similarly quick and easy to convert back again when downloading.
My main tool was the word processor, Google Docs, which I found easy to use, with conversions form Word reasonably accurate if not always perfect. Docs cannot match Word in terms of features — but like most people I only need a subset, and what was on offer proved more than adequate. It did take a while to get used to not having to save every couple of minutes and working out where documents were stored — at least to begin with.
My spreadsheet requirements are also fairly basic, making Google Sheets another good fit, and the same goes for the Google Slides presentations app. That said, conversions from Office were far from perfect and given the apps' lack of functionality, power users are likely to revert to Excel and PowerPoint on the desktop to meet more exacting needs.
On the plus side, I could view (and if necessary make changes to) documents very easily regardless of format — from whatever device was to hand. Sharing with others was also straightforward, whether within my Google Apps domain or outside.
The comprehensive email and calendaring tools are another key selling point. Although switching from Outlook to Gmail might be a culture-shock for some, most will have used web-based mail client in some shape or form. Moreover, there's a free plug-in to connect Outlook to Gmail for those unable to live outside the Microsoft bubble.
Am I likely to carry on using Google Apps for Business? Yes — simply because it makes life so much easier when it comes to accessing documents and files regardless of where I am or what computing devices are available. That said, because I'm so familiar with Microsoft's Office applications that I doubt Google will completely wean me away altogether — at least not for the time being.