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

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?

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.