Google Apps vs. Office Web Apps: Can Microsoft compete in the cloud?

Google Apps vs. Office Web Apps: Can Microsoft compete in the cloud?

Summary: Can cloud applications from Microsoft, the very folks who convinced all of those naysayers that they really need to have Microsoft Office installed on their computers, compete with those from Google? Or, in fact, are they really targeted at a completely different audience?

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Readers of ZDNet Education will know that I've been using Google Apps for some time and recently migrated my school district to Google Apps for Education (affectionately known as GAPE or Edu Apps, essentially their Premium Apps offering provided to educational institutions for free). The technology, particularly Gmail, has been remarkably well-received by staff and students, but acceptance of Google's cloud-based word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software has been hampered among a sizable chunk of users by the perception that they need Microsoft Office on their desktops (no matter how small a fraction of its functionality they use).

That being said, for those of us who have no such biases (and the group is growing, especially among students and new teachers in the district), Google Apps begs for collaboration and a model of computing where it really doesn't matter if we lose our USB stick, are sitting in an Internet cafe, are at home, or are at any terminal at work. We can still access everything we need. The cloud, naysayers be damned, is our friend.

So can cloud applications from Microsoft, the very folks who convinced all of those naysayers that they really need to have Microsoft Office installed on their computers, also be our friends? When a Microsoft Ed Tech rep reached out to me and offered me access to their Office Web Apps Technical Preview, I jumped at the chance to take them head-to-head. A Google vs. Microsoft prize fight! While Microsoft's Web Apps are very much in beta and Google's are relatively mature, production products, an apples-to-apples comparison isn't out of the question. I'll point out spots where the beta nature of Microsoft's applications show through, but this should give those without access to both products a good comparison of their respective features and benefits.

This picture from 2005 suggests that they've made a lot of progress

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Feature-by-feature Microsoft Web Apps and Google Apps actually have more similarities than differences. ZDNet's Ed Bott provides an in-depth look at Office Web Apps here, but I'll start with a side-by-side comparison of their features (for a more visual representation of these features, check out my gallery here):

Feature Google Apps Microsoft Web Apps
Cost Free for personal/ed use; $50/user for businesses Free for personal/ed use; requires Sharepoint and Office volume licensing for businesses
Word processing Yes Yes; currently view only
Presentations Yes Yes
Spreadsheets Yes Yes
Web site builder Yes No
Calendaring Yes Yes
Video hosting Yes No
Support for Office 2007/2008/2010 file types No Yes
Support for OpenOffice file types Yes No
Storage of any file type No Yes
Pivot Table support No Yes
Ability to publish documents to the web Yes Code provided to embed publicly shared documents in a web page; no native publication
Create forms and collect data in spreadsheets Yes No
Share documents with other users Yes Yes
Edit documents simultaneously Yes No
True WYSIWYG viewing of Office documents No Yes
Formula support in spreadsheets Yes Yes
Office integration ("Open document in Office") No Yes
Themes and formatting in presentations created from scratch Yes No
Live/interactive presentations Yes No
Sure, there are some features that Google Apps supports that are missing from Web Apps and vice versa. But they both provide online, browser-/platform-independent access to productivity applications.

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So what does this all mean for users? The user experience is both Google's strength and its curse. For people comfortable working in their browser (which includes almost all of Generation Facebook), Google Apps provides a well-integrated experience with easy access to all of your documents and those shared within your organization. Search, click, and you're in, editing a document. Click again and you're sharing, online with the world, online with your organization, or as an editable document with only chosen users. Integration with Gmail is seamless by design and multiple users can work on a single document simultaneously with a minimum of drama. Users can easily log in and join live presentations online, controlled by a presenter or viewed asynchronously and can chat/ask questions in real time.

And yet, it just doesn't look like Office. Not even like the beloved Office 2003.

Google Apps is all about producing content, oftentimes with other people. While that's a good thing, the focus is certainly not on creating production-quality desktop publishing with fine-grained formatting. Go ahead, I dare you to produce your company's brochure in Google Apps. It ain't InDesign. It's far better at getting people to make good documents together than it is at making pretty documents.

Office Web Apps, on the other hand, lacks any meaningful integration between mail and documents and requires a fussy process for opening and sharing documents. But there is no mistaking that you are working with an Office product. While editing in Word isn't available within the technical preview, formatting from documents produced in desktop Office is preserved quite well.

This alone may be enough to get people to embrace Office Web Apps over Google Apps. I had a pair of Doc Martens several years back. They were the best shoes I'd ever owned. Comfortable and utterly broken in. I wore them long after they ceased to repel water, keep me upright on slippery surfaces, or be appropriate in the workplace for even the most nonchalant of tech guys. There's quite a contingent of users who feel the same way about Office. To be honest, I still miss my Docs.

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And what does it mean for organizations looking for a cloud-based solution? There aren't a lot of organizations that are ready to leave a desktop productivity suite completely behind. Many want to make it easier for their members to access documents easily from anywhere or improve collaboration. Throw away your thumb drives and stop spending money on high-priced road-worthy laptops; let your documents live in the cloud, right?

These goals are, in fact, within reach with both Google Apps and Office Web Apps (once they get the kinks out of the latter and spiff up formatting capabilities in the former). Neither is quite there, though, especially Web Apps which remains very much in beta.

For now, Web Apps will be a valuable supplement to Office 2007/2008/2010 for shops with a heavy investment in Microsoft Ecosystems. Google Apps, on the other hand, can stand alone, producing a variety of documents, ranging from online forms that interact with cloud-based spreadsheets to multi-chapter documents with tables of contents. Even with this level of maturity, however, users will find it difficult to leave an office suite (probably Office 2007+, but possibly OpenOffice) for heavy lifting.

The verdict To some extent, Google Apps and Office Web Apps are directed at different audiences. Google Apps are outstanding in situations requiring heavy collaboration and teamwork where the end products will probably live online. Web Apps make a lot of sense for shops with Office, Sharepoint, Exchange, and other Microsoft products running throughout the enterprise who simply need an easy way to let users access and edit documents in the cloud.

If I had to pick a winner, it would be Google Apps because it does so many things well, was designed from the ground up to work in the cloud, and integrates all of its products with the core of communication through Gmail. Web Apps just seems a natural progression beyond Office Live Workspace. However, the utterly polished presentation of Web Apps, even in very early beta, means that Google can hardly rest on its laurels in this space. With all the talk lately of anti-trust in technology, this is one area in which consumers, businesses, and organizations will most certainly reap the benefits of competition in the months to come.

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

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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113 comments
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  • Lets's see, what's the most appealing...

    ...the cloud solution that has a fully integrated desktop suite that matches it or the one that doesn't?

    In other words your headline is the wrong way round.
    Sleeper Service
    • Let's see, fully integrated with technology from the last century. You got

      that right!!

      But, most are moving into the 21st century where
      20 million baroque options for printing on 8.5x11
      paper are not necessary.

      Google is hands down the best for collaboration
      and sharing online. Something as simple as two
      people editing a document at the same time does
      NOT work with the MS solution.
      DonnieBoy
      • You are wrong, once again

        [i]But, most are moving into the 21st century where 20 million baroque options for printing on 8.5x11 paper are not necessary.[/i]

        Yet people still do. A paper in the file cabinet is worth more then a file on a server.

        When on the road at meetings, and a document is required, the best do not trust they can access it on line, they have a laptop, or (not coincidently), a printed copy of the document.

        That is just the way it is, no story will change that.


        GuidingLight
        • Turn that around

          You say "A paper in the file cabinet is worth more then a file on a server"

          Just the opposite is actually true. A file on the file server can be printed if you absolutely have to (I know people do although my need to do so went away a long time ago). It can be copied to a laptop if need be as well. It is also backed up every night (off site in the case of my organization).

          If your building burns down or floods, your paper in that cabinet will be lost. If the same happens to me, I'd just restore it somewhere else.
          cornpie
          • Legal authority is the point

            Another way to put this is: a photographic film negative has more authenticity than a Photoshopped JPEG file in the cloud.

            A hard copy in the file cabinet is worth far more than any electronic version in terms of legal authority, contracts, multi-million/billion deals, etc ...

            Find me one legal team or company that would conduct a purely electronic contract. It will never happen. In a court of law, when budgets' numbers, tax returns, contract fine print--ANY form of written evidence/documentation, for that matter--only hard copies, dated and signed, will be worth anything.

            Extend this philosophy to ANY business function, no matter how seemingly "insignificant" it seems to you, as an outsider. The closer that organization is to its data, the better.

            The cloud and Google is good for collaboration. That's about it. I pity the fool who stores all of their sensitive data in the cloud, without a local backup. And there you have it: if you are going to store it locally, why not simply work locally?
            lalogos
          • If I may add to that,...

            NARA hates electronic records for more reasons than a lack of understanding computers. How easy is it for a hard drive to fail? How about tape or DVD? Even under environmentally controlled conditions, electronic media degrade much faster than paper. Worse yet is that if a piece of paper starts to degrade, it doesn't ruin the whole document. If just a couple ones and zeros get corrupted on a document, it is lost forever. Search for the digital black hole. Look at how much was lost from scientists switching from Commodores to the PC or UNIX-based systems in the 80s.
            MadWhiteHatter
          • Nothing stopping you from periodically printing versions of online

            documents and filing them away. Nothing stopping
            you from doing personal backups either.
            DonnieBoy
          • Re:dated and signed

            I'm not sure how much it would be trusted, but
            documents can be digitally signed (and dated),
            by both parties using any number of
            methods(here's the wikipedia article, just fyi:
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_signature ;
            I don't guarantee it's accuracy).

            And, for security, any document which you don't
            want third-parties to view may be encrypted as
            well as signed.

            Obviously, you'd want both parties to sign the
            document (just as if you'd want that on a
            physical document). Any modified document should
            be signed and dated with the same date it was
            modified (obviously).

            I see no reason this should be trusted any less
            than a physical document, with a physical
            signature. Both can be forged, and both can be
            changed. You can actually get a new digital
            signature and invalidate old ones, in case
            someone else gets your old one, so it could even
            be considered more dependable in some cases.
            Nobu_z
          • Recovery

            Well then what is the Corporate "Disaster Recovery"
            plan for this? When all of these filing cabinets burn
            to the ground how will business be resumed with
            minimum disruption? Have you got a big fire proof
            vault? Or do you store duplicates at two locations?

            I have duplicate copies of all my personal files, on
            the PC, on Google, and media back-up. Most
            corporations have a similar arrangement.
            bigpicture
          • Do you also believe you can't get a virus without clicking the attachement?

            [i]"Find me one legal team or company that would conduct a purely electronic contract. It will never happen. In a court of law, when budgets' numbers, tax returns, contract fine print--ANY form of written evidence/documentation, for that matter--only hard copies, dated and signed, will be worth anything.

            Extend this philosophy to ANY business function, no matter how seemingly "insignificant" it seems to you, as an outsider. The closer that organization is to its data, the better."[/i]

            I am currently working with a large government client who does just that, and they handle and distribute billions of dollars of public funds. All forms are received either electronically (using PDFs that the citizen fills out online) or if on paper the they are scanned and tagged. Once tagged they cannot be modified without it being determinable. They do not keep paper copies, these are destroyed and everything is kept on disk and tape. The reason I am familiar with this environment is because we are currently studying the feasibility of using deduplication and that may not be legally acceptable because the original electronic record would be altered. Everything else however remains on disk or tape, and their average for losing documents has plummeted since they have eliminated paper.

            Oh, and about that virus thing, well, that was just to show you that we do evolve... :-)
            914four
        • There is nothing stopping you from printing a document that is stored

          online (if you are really that backwards in your
          processes). But, Google Docs works offline, and,
          you can always save it to your USB thumb drive.

          One thing that Google could and should do is
          create a program to automatically keep your
          thumb drive up to date, so, you could specify
          which documents you want synced, and you just
          have to insert it periodically and sync up.
          Then, even without an internet connection, you
          can view them on any computer.
          DonnieBoy
          • Google Gears

            [i]One thing that Google could and should do is
            create a program to automatically keep your
            thumb drive up to date, so, you could specify
            which documents you want synced, and you just
            have to insert it periodically and sync up.
            Then, even without an internet connection, you
            can view them on any computer. [/i]
            I have not tested it myself, but for what I know, you can use google gears to (as an add-on for firefox) to keep your google web app access offline if necesary. If you combine this with portable firefox, alas, your pendrive solution!
            istari2ve20029
        • Really

          Well Really? What backwoods two bit company do
          you work for? Because I work for one of the biggest
          and paper is NOT the way we do it. Citrix is still the
          way we do it, but that is last century technology, it is
          actually slower than Google when used through
          corporate servers. But do large companies change at
          the speed of light?
          bigpicture
      • That's nice.

        But what point are you actually trying to make here?
        Sleeper Service
        • The point is, this is the 21st century, and formatting for 8.5x11 is going

          away fast. We view documents online, not printed
          copies. We collaborate online, not by emailing
          documents back and forth. We edit them wherever we
          are, not only when we are in our cubicle.
          DonnieBoy
          • None of my documents are stored on the Internet..

            But I can access all of them via the internet right now. They are on our servers, which via a VPN, I can access from anywhere that has internet access. I am confused as to why anyone would want an application that runs crippled in a browser as opposed to a desktop client. Programs made to run native on a PC will always be faster, more efficient and more available than ones running through a browser.

            Where we stored the documents is the question, and storing them on a company's servers other than ours is simply asking for trouble.
            condelirios
          • You can host

            your own Web Office in your servers for "better safekeeping" using Sharepoint. And well I think web version is useful for fast sharing and when you don't have your desktop software on a far away land with only a web browser lol
            keoz
          • Your servers are still connected to the internet, or, you would NOT be

            able to access the documents. You are just trying
            to say that YOUR protection scheme (VPN) is better
            than Google's. I don't buy it.

            And, they said that assembly language programs
            would ALWAYS be faster than those written in higher
            level languages, but, last time I checked, we run
            very few programs written in assembly language.

            That said, we are due for something better than
            JavaScript for web applications. I think a
            specially sandboxed version of Java will win out in
            the end.
            DonnieBoy
          • Not to nitpick but...

            [i]"they said that assembly language programs
            would ALWAYS be faster than those written in higher
            level languages, but, last time I checked, we run
            very few programs written in assembly language."[/i]

            A properly written assembler program will still be faster (unless the compiler knows tricks the assembler programmer doesn't) however by the time you finished writing that program the cpu it was written for would most likely be long obsolete...

            I agree with your point however, we do tend to evolve rather quickly, pesky humans that we are...

            The only thing that will never change is that things will change. Heraclitus pointed that out over 2500 years ago when he said "You can not step twice into the same river."
            914four
          • Long time ago when we was fab

            I used to think like you, but as a programmer (for 15+ years), I have had to realize that for most applications, a web based substitute is more than enough. The trick is balancing the weight that should run on the server (storage, calculations, etc) with what the client computer should be in charge of (presentation, layout, interactivity, etc). Most of what you want can be done using ajax, and if javascript is not enough for interactivity, you still have flash, silverlight or javafx (granted, the programming model is more complex, but is the price we have to pay for better solutions). And finally, just a niche of application (graphic design, scientific calculations, etc) require computationaly powerful dedicated hardware components. What I really think, is that we are all afraid of change, but we will survive and we will finally reach the sky, living in the cloud.
            istari2ve20029