Students vs. Google Apps vs. Office Web Apps

Summary:Between Google Apps (primarily Docs) and Microsoft's Office Web Apps, students now have a choice of online office suites. So what's the deal? An in-depth student perspective and analysis with additional screenshot gallery

I have spent quite a portion of my time covering the developments between Google Apps (Education Edition) and Microsoft's Live@edu online suites; the latest features, the timeline and background information, and the increasing competitive natures of the companies.

But throw in an interesting twist like Office Web Apps and it makes me consider the depth and breadth of Microsoft's determination to make an impact in the office-in-the-cloud niche market.

For what I am trying to conclude in this post is the Google Apps (Docs specifically) vs. Office Web Apps war but from the students perspective. This was admittedly my editor's idea, but a "student perspective" requires one to think outside the bog-standard definition-of-a box. Both are equally good - even though the latter has not been fully evaluated by the masses yet. From the documentation, the videos and the images we have seen already, what they have to offer seems appealing to the iGeneration.

Gallery To see a screenshot gallery of the new features in the Office Web Apps technical preview release, head on over this way, or read on.

So let's take this from a logical perspective and see which offers what exactly, rather than a finger-pointing exercise of which is better. Frankly, I don't care. Everyone is different and personal preference prevails in this; hence the competition factor between the companies.

A brief tit-for-tat comparison

With Google Docs I have the ability to use my university email address and corresponding password; that, however, is a feature of Google's account setup. With Google Apps which is a combination of Gmail, Google Docs and some other bits and pieces, it can link in directly with your university's account servers for a single sign-on solution.

Microsoft's Office Web Apps runs in two main capacities. In this context it falls into a "free for everyone" category where Office Web Apps is an online office suite which is activated when you access a compatible Office document through Windows Live SkyDrive. The second is the "for the university" where SkyDrive is non-existent and is replaced with an existing internal SharePoint site which allows Office Web Apps to open up in a very similar way to the consumer view.

The "free for everyone" version will be advert supported and will no doubt be quite annoying to those working with their documents, but it is after all how the Internet remains as free as it presently is. This version doesn't support your university single sign-on details mixing your Windows Live ID and your university credentials. Anything academic should stay that way; using "personal" accounts makes things messy and you lose track of your stuff.

Google Apps is a purely hosted solution so if something goes horrendously wrong then the chances are it is Google's issue and your IT technicians haven't tripped over an important cable in the server room. As Google has a far better infrastructure in place than even the most powerful university, so it takes costs out of the hands of the university to provide more services elsewhere.

Microsoft's side is getting a little confusing though. It seems to be mixing together so many services and not making distinct lines between services and products. Windows Live SkyDrive hosts the documents, whereas Office Web Apps opens them, but it can be integrated into SharePoint and Office Web Apps will be an integral part of Live@edu too.

Google Docs, however, uses the same space for storage of files and editing. It is as close to an actual online office suite as you can get, really.

But whether you like it or not, Google Docs or any non-Microsoft company will never make a fully compatible online or offline office suite which works 100% with Office documents. The simple reason here is that Microsoft made Office and that Office has a set standard. Only those with the know-how and the original source code can make it happen. If Google were in that position, Google Docs would be on top.

And there's more...

The user experience is important

Having hardware is one thing but more often than not, it is how you physically use the product. You wouldn't buy a mouse which wasn't ergonomic to the shape of your hand, to the point where you are shifting a cube around your desk, would you?

Google doesn't have an offline office product so a comparison could not really be fair in this instance. Nevertheless, the cloud factor is important. With more and more of us taking advantage of working from home and away from the lecture theatre, being able to access your documents and edit them there and then is becoming paramount.

The reason why people use cloud storage facilities or online office suites in particular are for those basic, common and simple things - but equally important tasks. As my colleague Chris Dawson points out, with the recent swine flu pandemic, being able to work from anywhere (or your deathbed) is becoming more pertinent to how we work.

Something I pointed out of interest to many was the release of Acrobat.com Presentations back in May. With their technology stemming all features from a Flash interface, which:

"...unlike Google Docs which uses xHTML and AJAX technology. [So] as a result, it can be run on any computer or mobile device, on any platform in any browser as Flash is open to every client possible. Also, after playing with it for some time already, it uses “spot-on-WYSIWIG”, so it exports and prints exactly as you see it on the screen."

Not everything in the Office Web Apps user interface is currently (nor will be) in Silverlight. To some extent it isn't necessary, with the menus being mostly xHTML and JavaScript, while any transition or animation part of the software will be in Silverlight; the PowerPoint Web App player and the document viewer.

Because it uses xHTML for the menus and not a plug-in technology like Flash or Silverlight, there could be issues with "incompatible" browsers. While Office Web Apps and Google Docs are both compatible in major browsers - Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari - slight differences in style could cause aesthetic issues. But as the majorly important parts are in Silverlight, it can in theory be used in any browser on any platform.

The interesting twist is that regardless of whether the two companies are now competing in this areas as well, Office Web Apps doesn't work on Google's Chrome browser. Apparently they "had to prioritise", with the previously mentioned browsers still being the most used.

Not only is Google Docs incredibly easy to use as a cloud office suite, the exporting options available are vast and allow PDF exporting, HTML and even more quirky file formats. Office Web Apps, as you would imagine, will stick to the limited few that Microsoft support as file formats.

Microsoft's "missing link" factor

As Microsoft says as Microsoft doesn't do, they like to tease and please in small quantities. This is what journalists are for, to provide you with trickles of information here and there because the software companies cannot always say things for definite. Office Web Apps falls firmly into this category.

With this in mind, what else do we know?

Silverlight, even though an integral part of some Office Web Apps, will not be entirely required. It will be used for rendering zooming in and out on documents and animations in slideshows, but will only be used if it is detected on the user's PC.

With SkyDrive storage at 25GB, you can open up a document in Office Web Apps and from there to your offline Office application. Once you hit save, it saves directly back to your SkyDrive without any need to re-upload manually. As a result of this, each change you make (even if it is a single comma) gets saved as you go on the server. This guarantees you never lose anything you are/were working on.

And finally, Office Live Workspaces was doomed to fail from the very beginning. Once things are ready on the SkyDrive front, all the workspaces and documents will be migrated over to SkyDrive so they can still be accessed. Whether this will cause for a name change to "Windows Live Office Apps", I am not sure, but I wouldn't put it past them.

So what will I use?

For the simple reason that I have the Office 2010 Technical Preview and Office 2007 installed, and the latter is installed on every public PC on the University of Kent campus. I know that if I have a single document being opened by multiple cloud office suites which are not hosted/built by the same people who built the Office 2007 file type, things will get messy down the line.

I just feel sorry for the OpenOffice.org lot.

Go ahead. Tell me how right or wrong I am.

Topics: Apps, Cloud, Collaboration, Google, Microsoft, Software

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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