What's the best online app solution for your business?

Summary:The two contenders: Microsoft Office 365 and Google Apps for Business. Which is your organization's best bet? Ed Bott and Chris Dawson debate the pros and cons of each.

Ed Bott

Ed Bott

Office 365

or

Google Apps

Christopher Dawson

Christopher Dawson

Best Argument: Office 365

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

Trust the most experienced

Ed Bott: Microsoft knows enterprise software. Its Exchange server will celebrate its 20th birthday next year, and during that time it has evolved impressively, knocking off some impressive competitors along the way. (Remember Lotus Notes? WordPerfect GroupWise?)

It was natural that Microsoft would move Exchange into the cloud, which they did in 2008. Office 365 is the successor to that service.

Microsoft Exchange has a big-company-only reputation. That might have been true five years ago, but not today. What impresses me most about Office 365 is how it delivers a powerful and sophisticated service in a package that scales from one-person shops all the way up to global enterprises.

Google has done a good job of scaling its free Gmail service into something that a lot of people love. But which company will I trust my business with? It’s no contest: The one with the most experience wins.

Google Apps is a no-brainer

Chris Dawson: Google Apps was designed from the ground up to support business collaboration in the cloud. From the early days of integrating Writely and XL2Web with Gmail six years ago to the modern incarnation complete with full office suite capabilities, a marketplace of integrated third-party apps, and a variety of editions to support key verticals, Google Apps has always focused on enabling people to work together better online. In fact, although Google Apps works quite well as a standalone office suite and cloud storage medium, its native sharing and simultaneous editing features for documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and drawings for a single price in a 100% SaaS environment are where it really shines.

If your business is serious about collaboration and wants the fastest, easiest, least expensive way to get employees working together without any investments in on-premise software or hardware, Google Apps is a no-brainer.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Uptime

    Does uptime matter and what company---Google or Microsoft---is best equipped to deliver it?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    It's a toss-up

    Any cloud service has potential issues with uptime. Both Microsoft and Google have had their share of hiccups, but I would rate both companies highly on this score. They have the technical chops and the money to keep servers up and running. But Office 365 has an edge, in my opinion, because it was designed from the start with superior offline support. There are all sorts of reasons why a user might lose access to a cloud service, from business travel to power outages to ISP glitches. But you can keep working on Office mail, calendars, and apps even when offline. Google is getting better at this, but they still have a long ways to go.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Office 365

    Uptime absolutely matters

    Especially for Google Apps since, as Ed points out, it's meant to live entirely off-premise in the cloud. Both companies are well-positioned to deliver high levels of uptime and both guarantee 99.9%. However, Google's global, homegrown, heavily replicated infrastructure with green datacenters leveraging alternative power sources and powerful load balancing ultimately position it better to stay online at all costs. Both companies have suffered high-profile outages. It remains to be seen how this will play out as competition between the two heats up further and Microsoft brings more customers to Office 365.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Google Apps

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Collaboration features

    What are the best collaboration features for both sides?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Office is professional strength

    Google Apps has the virtue of simplicity. I like the ability to build a spreadsheet and fill it with data from a large number of people. But as soon as the tasks get complicated, all bets are off and Office 365 shows its superiority. I hear horror stories about Google appointments that never made it onto a calendar, for example. Exchange is enterprise-class collaborative software, with world-class email and calendar support that you can access from Outlook or from a browser, and thanks to Exchange ActiveSync it works with every mobile device and third-party client you can imagine. SharePoint is the dark horse of the package. We use it at my publishing company, both for internal workflow and for sharing with outside contractors. It's awesome, once you scale the learning curve. Collaborative editing of Office documents is equally strong. When I open a Word document or an Excel worksheet using the web-based interface, it looks right, and if I open it in the associated Office app I get access to kickass revision features and absolute confidence in the end product.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Office 365

    Anytime, anywhere

    As the cloud has always promised, the best features of both suites relate to the ability to work anytime, anywhere, with anyone. Microsoft's Lync video conferencing is very strong. When Sharepoint services are layered on, there are some very cool real-time cool features on Office documents; Office's change tracking has always been strong and remains so here. However, Writely, Google's original acquisition that became Google Docs, was designed from the get-go to enable people to share documents that lived in the cloud and work together on them. Today, many applications available in the Google Apps Marketplace leverage Apps APIs for deep social collaboration across the enterprise. Similarly, the core Apps all allow native, real-time work on everything from diagrams to spreadsheets.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Google Apps

  • Great Debate Moderator

    UI: Does it matter?

    Frankly I'm a bit underwhelmed by both UIs. Can either Google or Microsoft develop a great UI over time?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    I'm not sure which UI you mean

    Google's UIs always look like they were built by engineers in a hermetically sealed lab on Mars, far from human contact. With Office 365, Microsoft has a brilliant UI in Outlook Web Access. The UI for SharePoint is so filled with options that even I get confused and have to write tutorials for myself. And the administrative portal is clean but technical. I see signs of hope: Microsoft has shown some real design chops in recent software releases. I'd like to see it evolve more quickly, though.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Office 365

    Of course

    Look at the evolution from Office 2003 to 2007. It was tough to transition to the Ribbon for many users, but once accustomed to it, it turned out to be a much better interface in most respects. That only took 4 years . Google Apps, as Ed points out, has only been around since 2009. In three short years, the interface has advanced in leaps and bounds with great mobile and browser experiences, particularly in the areas of collaboration. In time, the interface will be honed for a variety of hardware, will leveraging improved web standards, and become the norm for web experiences. It does take time to balance maximum function with elegant form and I agree that both suites have a ways to go. However, from the early days of Writely to now, Google's SaaS approach and its ability to rapidly (or slowly if organizations choose) roll out enhancements and improvements (both in services and UI) will make it a winner among large swaths of users who weren't steeped in Office throughout their careers.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Google Apps

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Worries re Office 365

    What worries you most about Office 365?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Will the market notice?

    I wish the administrative interface was more user-friendly. I worry that Microsoft can't build a UI that will work for small businesses, who need handholding when setting up a service that is as rich and full-featured as this. But my biggest worry is that the tech press will continue to do what they always do and ignore a superior product from Microsoft and flog an inferior offering because it's from Google. Ironically, Chris makes my point better than I can, because some of his responses suggest he doesn't know what's in Office 365. (There's no free version, for example.) This isn't a problem for enterprise customers, who know how to do the proper evaluations. But I fear that a lot of small businesses will find themselves pushed toward the clunky, kludgey Google Apps when something much more useful is available.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Office 365

    No worries, just a better option

    Office 365 doesn't worry me. It works well and plays nicely with popular desktop software and backoffice solutions. Great. However, that doesn't make it the best solution. The name of the game in 2012 is collaboration in a global economy. No matter where you are or where your colleagues are, you should be able to work together seamlessly in the most cost-effective manner possible. You should be able to deploy collaborative services and extend them with any needed third-party applications and even your own apps and APIs. Office 365 can't deliver that. Google Apps can. The free version of Office 365, btw, is their educational offering, the source of some of their largest deployments to date. I should have been clearer - thanks for the note.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Google Apps

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Google Apps support going forward

    Do you believe that Google Apps will be supported in the long run?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Believe? That's a funny word...

    Little kids believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Businesses can't afford to make decisions on what they believe in. They have to spend large amounts of money and anchor their businesses based on software infrastructure they trust. And that trust has to be earned. Microsoft has two decades of experience in delivering the software that underlies Office 365. It was less than three years ago (July 2009, to be exact) that Google took the beta label off Google Apps. The Terms of Service for Google Apps say that features can be cut with as little as a week's notice. No matter how big or small my company, I certainly wouldn't feel confident.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Office 365

    It's in Google's best interest

    It's clear that Google wants to be the web ecosystem of choice for as many users as possible. All the better to deliver those ads to! The stickier Google's services, whether Google+, Google Apps, search, YouTube, or any other offering, the more revenue they can derive from ads. So yes, Google Apps contributes directly to Google's bottom line in really significant ways, not via the relatively low cost per user but through the overall engagement of an expanding user base and growth in the enterprise. Google struggles to get social right, but they've nailed collaboration software in the cloud - Google Apps isn't going anywhere.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Google Apps

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The security argument

    What about security for cloud productivity suites: Red herring or something to worry about?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Yes, security matters

    I find it hard to imagine any factor that could be more important, frankly. If you're going to run your business in a cloud-based service, you'd better have rock-solid security on the client and on the server. ??I think both companies have a pretty strong commitment to securing data from outside intruders. The advantage that the Microsoft-based solution has is that a company can choose to keep part of its enterprise out of the cloud and under its own virtual lock and key. With Google Apps, you're all in. (Gulp.)

    Ed Bott

    I am for Office 365

    Red herring

    You don't hear about a Google datacenter getting left on a train or stolen out of a car. Solutions that are inherently designed around and meant to work with desktop software contain the data that make headlines when they are lost or stolen. I challenge any business to put their physical and logical security measures up against either Google's or Microsoft's for their cloud-based tools and see who is *really* the most secure.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Google Apps

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Lock-in vs. experience

    We hear about enterprise experience a lot---especially on the large company argument. Is that argument really about path of least resistance and being locked into an ecosystem? Pick your vendor---Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, SAP---and customers seem to be more inclined to keep going with their existing system.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    It's not lock-in if it works

    The reason Exchange and SharePoint have prevailed in the marketplace over Lotus Notes and other competitors is because they work, and because the companies that invest in them know they will be supported and will continue to evolve. IT pros are always willing to consider alternatives if there's a tangible benefit. But saving a few dollars per seat per year is a false economy. There are solid, tangible economic benefits that companies derive from the synergy of the software we're talking about here. If that's lock-in, sign me up.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Office 365

    Key word: Entrenched

    We hear about the entrenchment of Exchange more than we hear about enterprise "experience". Of course it's easier for large organizations who have spent years building out Active Directory and related Microsoft-centric infrastructure and services to just layer on a slick web-based way of accessing documents than to make the jump to a completely cloud-based platform. Google also represents what many see as a security risk, the old, "if it ain't in my datacenter, it ain't secure" myth. And it really is just that: a myth. But it's a powerful perception, especially for enterprises that have invested millions in datacenter facilities and on-premise solutions over the years.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Google Apps

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Google Apps: For large enterprises?

    On the Google Apps side, do you see more traction on the large enterprise side for it? It appears that Google landed a few huge accounts, but is more focused on small and midsized outfits these days.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Microsoft and enterprise are synonymous

    No one understand the enterprise market like Microsoft, which is why companies like IBM and HP partner with them. Google has done a very good job with the education market and small business, but they have an uphill battle with large enterprises. That's especially true for any enterprise that has to deal with regulatory and compliance issues like the healthcare and securities markets. If Google wants to be a serious player in this space, they have to step up their game pretty dramatically. Given how entrenched Exchange is, and how well it works in those environments, I find it hard to see what Google can offer that will make people want to jump into the great unknown.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Office 365

    Google Apps definitely has the most traction with SMBs

    And that isn't a bad thing - there's actually room in the market here for both. That being said, Google Apps scales perfectly for very large organizations looking to leverage its superior native collaboration tools without major investments in additional Sharepoint and Exchange technologies. $50/user/year. That's it. No other costs. That's a powerful value prop for large shops who are willing to make the leap to the cloud and the workflows that can be enabled by 100% online collaboration, creation, storage, and sharing tools. The very large enterprises that Google has managed to capture tend to be fairly progressive organizations where the entrenchment of a particular platform (Exchange) isn't a valid reason to stick with it.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Google Apps

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Office 365: Offense or defense?

    Microsoft was a bit late with Office 365, will customers be able to leave on-premise Office for the cloud version completely? Or is Microsoft's strategy all about keeping customers in the Office universe?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Who says Microsoft was late?

    Office 365 is the successor to Microsoft Online, aka Business Productivity Online Suite, which turns three years old this week. (It launched three months before Google Apps came out of beta.) That's three years of steady and very impressive development. If you look at a Word document or Excel worksheet in the Office 365 web app, it is fully functional, whereas Google Docs are often primitive in their support of advanced features, And one of the best features of Office 365 for corporate customers, in my opinion, is that they DON'T have to move everything to the cloud. Microsoft supports mixed environments of on-premises servers and cloud-based services. For regulated businesses, that's a big deal. PS: Chris, Office 365 doesn't use SkyDrive. It uses SharePoint storage.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Office 365

    It's not about going "all in" on the cloud

    Despite Microsoft marketing rhetoric to the contrary, Office 365 isn't about going "all in" on the cloud. It's about supplementing desktop and on-premise offerings. Office 365 is an add-on. Google Apps was designed from the ground up to live in the cloud, promote collaboration in the cloud, and operate in the browser. Organizations who are interested in 100% cloud solutions aren't looking at Microsoft. They're looking at Google Apps. Those who don't want to leave Office behind are happy to fill in some gaps with 365. PS: Thanks for clarifying, Ed...still, though, as you noted, the free version uses a somewhat hobbled version of Sharepoint technologies.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Google Apps

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Is it all pie in the cloud?

    And what's the downside for both?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    You get what you pay for

    For Office 365, probably the biggest downside is that some of the most advanced features, like SharePoint Workspace, require the expensive Professional Plus version of Office. For Google Apps, the lack of solid offline access is a real problem, but my biggest misgiving is much more fundamental. This is a company that derives 96% of its revenue from advertising and has serious clouds over it as far as privacy is concerned. Google's also not afraid to kill products when they don't deliver results. Are they committed to Google Apps for the long haul?

    Ed Bott

    I am for Office 365

    Downside? What downside?

    If Google Apps has a downside, it's that documents often lack the camera-ready fidelity to which most Office users are accustomed. Of course, the point of Apps is collaboration and producing electronic/web-based content, in which snazzy tables of contents are generally not much of an issue. For Office 365, the richness of third-party apps, built-in simultaneous editing, and complete ease of collaboration across all tools simply isn't there. The "point and click" simplicity of sharing also isn't there, relying instead on the somewhat kludgy SkyDrive (although the 25GB of storage is very handy).

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Google Apps

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The pros for these suites

    What do you see as the pros of Office 365 and Google Apps?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    This is enterprise-class software

    There's no question that the biggest pro for Office 365 is its long history in the enterprise. This is battle-tested software that big corporations have used and trusted in house for a long time. The cloud versions of Exchange and SharePoint offer the exact same features and security as the on-premises equivalents. You also get your choice of online or offline access, using a browser or Microsoft Office. As for Google Apps, one advantage is that the Standard version is free. And, of course, it works in a browser, which means you can sit down anywhere and use it. Of course, that's true of Office 365, too. Hmmm...

    Ed Bott

    I am for Office 365

    Neither is a bad choice by any means

    I've been a long-time user of Google Apps and I believe it's the most flexible solution for the largest number of businesses. It's greatest strength is its native collaboration potential and integration with Android. That said, for organizations with heavy investment in Microsoft ecosystems, the integration across on-premise services, Windows Phone, and other platforms is quite strong. The fidelity of documents in Office 365 is a real draw for some people as well.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Google Apps

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Mike check, pls respond to make sure we're set

    testing

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Ready and waiting!

    Just to keep things fair, I'm using a completely neutral browser: Firefox. ;)

    Ed Bott

    I am for Office 365

    Here!

    Chrome all the way!

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Google Apps

Closing Statements

Microsoft knows what businesses need

Ed Bott

Handing over control of your company’s email and collaboration infrastructure is a big decision that shouldn’t be made lightly.

Both Microsoft and Google have built impressive online offerings backed by massive infrastructure. Google, as my esteemed colleague points out, believes you should “live in the cloud, promote collaboration in the cloud, and operate in the browser.”

Unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world, where the cloud disappears at inconvenient times, often when you need it most. And those browser-only apps are improving steadily, but they’re still second-rate.

With 20 years of experience in collaboration software, Microsoft knows what businesses need, and Office 365 delivers that enterprise-class product to businesses of all sizes.

This is Microsoft’s core business, and they’re in it for the long haul. For Google, this is still a sideline. Maybe it’ll be around next year, maybe it won’t. I know which company I’d bet my business on.

Different way of doing things

Christopher Dawson

Office 365 is an incredibly useful means of accessing your documents from the browser. Fidelity is good, integration across Microsoft ecosystems is good, and this represents a solid choice for organizations heavily invested in Microsoft infrastructures. The leap to the cloud, after all, is not something that comes easily, especially for large enterprises.

However, Office 365 doesn't give us much that we can't achieve with Microsoft Office and Dropbox. Google Apps, on the other hand, represents a significant transformation in workflow, business processes, and collaborative potential, all administered, provisioned, and managed with total ease from the web. It's a different way of doing things and it isn't the right choice for every organization but can be transformational for those ready and willing to embrace it.

True real-time collaboration, combined with a vast set of integrated third-party applications from the Google Apps Marketplace and mobile device management/integration, make Google Apps a winning choice.
 

Best bet? Depends

Lawrence Dignan

This debate was a bit tricky. Comparing Google Apps and Microsoft's Office 365 can spark a bit of a religious debate. In the end, Ed Bott had the better argument against Christopher Dawson, but the reality is that both of these cloud office suites can work depending on your situation. As many talkbackers noted, Google Apps is better for small businesses based on cost while larger enterprises already invested in Microsoft may find Office 365 the better bet.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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