Students vs. Google Apps vs. Office Web Apps

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 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 lot.

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

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

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  • Buyer beware

    Before people get too excited about Office Web Apps, they need to remember that:

    - Google's strength comes from its ability to create quality, innovative products, based on open standards. Google has even established the "Data Liberation Front" (, to make it easy to migrate user data in & out of Google's products & services.

    - Microsoft's strength comes from its ability to lock-in users, with proprietary technology. YOU'RE NOT GOING least not easily.

    - Google builds web apps & services that are intended to run EQUALLY WELL on ANY PLATFORM with a modern, standards-compliant browser (i.e. Windows/OS X/Linux...smartphones/notebooks/tablets,...).

    - Microsoft builds web apps & services that only run/always run BETTER, with other MICROSOFT PRODUCTS & proprietary technologies (Windows/Office/IE/Silverlight). This serves to "lock" users, into their ecosystem.

    Look at the hell businesses are going through now, just to move from IE6, to a modern, standards-compliant web browser.

    Until Microsoft demonstrates that they have truly changed, I'll take Google, thank-you.

    As they say: Buyer beware.
    • Of course you wouldn't be having this conversation

      if it wasn't for Microsoft. And Google has a long way to go as far as functionality, and we are piloting the Google Docs in our company...they fall short of the user demands. For simple stuff they have been great, but that is only about 10% of the need at this time and we have had issues getting the tool to do somethings that are required, but I'm talking an enterprise not a student, they can't be compared. Google in the enteprise is having issues. Our new young employee's right out of school are finding that pill hard to swallow, but also can't make the tool do the things they need...not at this time anyway.
      • Actually, the conversation could have happened without Microsoft.

        But probably not without Philippe Kahn, since he was the one that forced Microsoft to lower their prices enough to make them affordable for home users and in essence made them as popular as they have become.
    • An ex-IBM consultant once told me...

      ...that Microsoft has the highest cost to exit of any enterprise application. This in effect makes them the mainframe of the 21st Century.

      I for one am recommending that my clients use Open Standards wherever possible to avoid those lock-in pitfalls.
    • Google builds junk

      Google building quality products, I find that is the best joke I have heard all decade.
      • recent posts

        Clearly, you don't like Google. Can you offer any reason why?
  • RE: Students vs. Google Apps vs. Office Web Apps

    When I was a grad student, I could barely afford a laptop, let alone an office suite. However, Microsoft had this killer deal of an offer that made it affordable. Most of my colleagues, including me, took advantage of it. Now that I'm out of school and working professionally, I prefer Office because that was what I was "schooled" on. My co-workers also prefer Office because that's what they were exposed to in college. Great marketing plan for Microsoft.
    btween here&there
  • RE: Students vs. Google Apps vs. Office Web Apps

    I have been using Google Docs soley in my work and at home
    for over two years. I have never looked back and never been
    happier. Students are going to use what is most prevalent on
    their campus in most instances. However, the students will
    be more comfortable with the concept of having docs hosted
    on the cloud which should over time push both Microsoft and
    Google to make better products. If anyone out there wants to
    really know what Google Apps can do go to:
  • RE: Students vs. Google Apps vs. Office Web Apps

    Well, as a student, and pretty tech savvy, I feel somewhat qualified to speak on behalf of Google Docs. The most important thing, which is indispensible to many students, is the collaborative aspect. We have dreaded "group projects" in which all members are expected to contribute- and Google Docs is simply a fantastic way to add all the substance, even with several editing the same document at exactly the same time. More often than not we are on a deadline, and passing versions amongst the team is impossible. The only drawback is that the resulting HTML document needs formatting in a standard form, and may need headers, footers, and other more complex changes that can't be done online as well as a local copy of a word processing can do it.
    • RE: Students vs. Google Apps vs. Office Web Applications

      As a student, I can definately say that I would never use Google Apps. Storage in the cloud is a lofty idea, but local storage is infinately much better as well as locally installed applications for the express reason that I am not always connected to the Internet. I for one have blocked Google and will refuse to use anything from them.
  • RE: Students vs. Google Apps vs. Office Web Apps

    Google Gears = offline google docs use. Doy.
    • Ahh - a fine point

      Very true. I love Google Gears; works on the behind-the-scenes publishing app we use, and means even if t'Internet is down I can still save drafts offline.

      Google Gears + Google Docs = Google Office?
  • Why feel sorry for the lot, Zack ?

    [b]OpenOffice[/b] versions provide better compatibility with, e g, more word processor programmes, including earlier versions of [b]MS Office[/b] itself, than, say, [b]MS Office 2007[/b] does. The only thing that [b]Microsoft[/b] could do to make real trouble for [b]OpenOffice[/b] would be to abandon support for [b].doc[/b] files, but this the firm hasn't dared do, given all the users of versions of [b]MS Office[/b] 1997 - 2003 out there who just might begin searching for their pitchforks in order to deal with the last straw from this company. As pointed out above, [b]Google Docs[/b] is great for collaborative efforts, but until such time as it can deal properly with such minor matters as footnotes (which are hardly minor in the academic world), users will have to take the final [b]Google Docs[/b] version of a paper and export it to a competent word processor, like [b]OpenOffice[/b] and there deal with the layout problems. I predict a bright future for [b]OpenOffice[/b], so long as the developers continue to provide a superior product....

    • is ok, thank you.

      Google Docs and OpenOffice will be working together while MS Office and Office Web Apps will be doing their darnedest to make everyone else choke on their documents, and in the name of the $ they may just do it to Office 1997 and 2003 users too.
  • No wiki or web authoring in Office Web Apps

    We have Google Apps for Education at our college, and are very happy
    with it. The most popular service below email (Gmail) is Sites, which
    allows one to create wikis and fairly visually sophisticated web sites,
    without wiki markup or html. There is nothing comparable in Office Web
    Apps. To me, that is the deal killer.
  • RE: Students vs. Google Apps vs. Office Web Apps

    IBM is a monoploy. At work, I still use IBM mainframe that they are the only vendor in town. Majority of financial sectors use IBM product. They cost lots more than just Windows or Linux or Unix.
    • I meant to reply to 914four

      I meant to reply to 914four about the ex-ibm. They are competitor, of course, they say anything.
  • why limit it to two

    There are literally a couple of thousand web applications out there to complement/compete with Google and MS. For example, Zoho office beats the pants off either of them for about the same price. IBM is entering the fray. More important, there are free or nominal cost web based applications that can do most everything from web pages, desktop publishing, presentations, video,audio etc.

    If any particular school chose to work with a selection of these applications then the apps would probably continue to be around, and missing common features to complement the baseline suites would be available for a richer range of tools for students.

    Of course, specialized or complex professional programs will not be moving to the cloud anytime soon, so there will always be a need for local capabilities.
  • RE: Students vs. Google Apps vs. Office Web Apps

    MS Office web apps must be understood within the wider context of MS Office overall including desktop software.

    The market-leader in this field is, by a vast margin, MS Office. The online version of Office is simply a convenient extension of the desktop version. With MS Office 2010 files can be saved direct to SkyDrive, where they can be viewed and edited online.

    MS has the fully integrated market-leading desktop software to bring users to the online version. Google does not. The new version of Hotmail which is about to launch is also fully integrated with SkyDrive and MS Office web apps.

    So, can you guess who is going to get all the users? I certainly can.

    I do feel that MS could have implemented Office web apps more quickly, and perhaps that was for commercial reasons. But it would be inaccurate to suggest that MS are playing catch-up. Google purchased the product they repackaged as Docs *after* Bill Gates announced MS's plan for web-based MS Office. In fact, MS led the way in this field, with online versions of Outlook.

    Yes, note that Google purchased Docs. They didn't develop it. This is not innovation by Google, no matter how eager you are to give them credit for it. MS developed Office Web Apps, and this is just version one, it will just keep getting better and better.

    Google Docs poses no real major strategic threat to MS Office, except in theory. Even ignoring MS Office Web Apps, there are better alternatives than Google Docs out there, by the way.

    Enjoy! :)
    Tim Acheson