The leading cloud-hosted office productivity/collaboration suites are Google Apps and Microsoft's Office 365. Both offer similar hosted email and calendaring options, web-based document editing plus cloud-based storage — and, for business users, the ability to communicate and work collaboratively.
However, there are also major differences between the two suites, so we decided to evaluate each in turn to discover how easy it might be for a business used to desktop productivity tools (such as Microsoft Office) to make the move to the cloud. Here's how we got on.
Simple fixed licence regardless of deployment size
Extensive browser/device support
Everything done from a browser
Users may need to revert to Office for complex documents
Affordable, feature-rich and easy to use, Google Apps for Business ticks the majority of boxes when it comes to abolishing desktop dependence. However, power users may not be able to abandon Office entirely.
Switching to Google Apps is both quick and easy, with just the one subscription plan to choose from, priced at £3.30 per user per month — or £33/user/year (£2.75/user/month) if you commit to an annual contract — regardless of who you are or what you want to do. Note that, in the UK, if you provide a VAT number you won't be charged VAT, but are advised to include the tax liability when making a return. In US money, the prices are $5/user/month, or $50/user/year ($4.17/user/month) on an annual contract.
For this one fixed subscription you get access to the entire suite of Google applications, including Gmail with a 25GB inbox along with Google Calendar plus Google Docs for word processing, Sheets and Slides. You also get 5GB of Google Drive cloud storage per user plus shared workspaces in the guise of Google Sites — easy-to-build websites that can be put to all manner of purposes — with 10GB of storage for uploaded files.
Users can be added to and removed from the parent account as required and you can purchase additional Google Drive storage as required. You can also use your own domain name rather than the Google-hosted alternative with a simple automated service to set this up.
Of course you won't want everyone to have the same rights, so access to applications, sharing privileges and other options can be centrally administered, with this and other management tasks achieved through an straightforward browser interface — much like that used throughout the Google Apps suite.
A browser, in fact, is all you really need to use Google Apps and you can use just about any one you like. Chrome is an obvious choice and a must-have if you want offline access to documents, but it's far from essential. We had no problems with either Firefox or Internet Explorer on the desktop, and encountered few issues on tablets or smartphones. Indeed, one of the big selling points of Google Apps is how easy it is to access regardless of what you happen to be using — Windows PC, Apple Mac, Chromebook, Android or Apple iOS device.
Where available, custom apps for consumer versions of Google's cloud services (such as Drive) can also be used with the business product and third-party applications purchased from the Google Apps Marketplace to further enhance the service.
Living with Google Apps
Like many long-time users of Microsoft's desktop products, I had a few concerns about losing my Office comfort blanket. However, the switch to Google's way of working didn't take long and was pretty painless.
The fact that I had used Google Drive and other cloud storage services before helped, plus I knew I would have to convert from Office to Google format in order to edit online. However, rather than converting when uploading documents I was variously prompted to do so when hitting the edit button or it was done for me automatically — an important consideration as unconverted files ate into the 5GB storage allowance, which was very quickly used up. It was similarly quick and easy to convert back again when downloading.
My main tool was the word processor, Google Docs, which I found easy to use, with conversions form Word reasonably accurate if not always perfect. Docs cannot match Word in terms of features — but like most people I only need a subset, and what was on offer proved more than adequate. It did take a while to get used to not having to save every couple of minutes and working out where documents were stored — at least to begin with.
My spreadsheet requirements are also fairly basic, making Google Sheets another good fit, and the same goes for the Google Slides presentations app. That said, conversions from Office were far from perfect and given the apps' lack of functionality, power users are likely to revert to Excel and PowerPoint on the desktop to meet more exacting needs.
On the plus side, I could view (and if necessary make changes to) documents very easily regardless of format — from whatever device was to hand. Sharing with others was also straightforward, whether within my Google Apps domain or outside.
The comprehensive email and calendaring tools are another key selling point. Although switching from Outlook to Gmail might be a culture-shock for some, most will have used web-based mail client in some shape or form. Moreover, there's a free plug-in to connect Outlook to Gmail for those unable to live outside the Microsoft bubble.
Am I likely to carry on using Google Apps for Business? Yes — simply because it makes life so much easier when it comes to accessing documents and files regardless of where I am or what computing devices are available. That said, because I'm so familiar with Microsoft's Office applications that I doubt Google will completely wean me away altogether — at least not for the time being.
Office 365 Small Business Premium
Highly integrated and compatible with desktop Office suite
Office 2013 for use on 5 devices
Office on Demand
Familiar look and feel
Limited compatibility outside Windows 7/8 devices
Can be significantly more expensive than Google apps for large deployments
Quicker, cleaner and more functional, Office 365 Small Business Premium moves the product up a gear to challenge Google Apps for Business with a tightly integrated suite of cloud and desktop office productivity tools that will appeal to companies of all sizes.
Microsoft is not known for simple product lines and straightforward licensing plans, and has done little to alter that perception in Office 365, which comes in a variety of guises for home, small business and enterprise use. The consumer-focused Home Premium service concentrates on desktop productivity rather than email and collaboration. The Home licence also forbids commercial use, so for our trial we initially signed up for Office 365 Small Business, which can be had for £3.90 (ex. VAT) per user per month — or £39.60/user/year (£3.30/user/month) on an annual contract — with a limit of 25 users. Beyond that, you'll need to consider the Midsize Business (up to 300 users) or Enterprise (unlimited users) plans. In US money, the Small Business prices are $6/user/month, or $60/user/year ($5/user/month) on an annual contract.
As well as all the Microsoft Web Apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Publisher, InfoPath and Access), business users get Exchange Online for email complete with shared calendars and a 25GB inbox per licence plus antivirus and spam protection. Business users also get Lync Online for communications and SharePoint Online for collaboration and storage. Note that, instead of the consumer-focused SkyDrive service, business users get SkyDrive Pro: together with customisable Team Sites, this is hosted by SharePoint with a total of 10GB of storage provided, plus 7GB of SkyDrive Pro per user.
Desktop apps aren't included in the basic small business services, so we also looked at the recently released Small Business Premium offering, which at £10.10 (ex. VAT) per user per month — £100.80/user/year (£8.40/user/month) on an annual contract — is likely to be a popular choice. That's because it allows users to download the full desktop Office 2013 suite — just as in Office 365 Home Premium — on up to five devices. It also adds Office on Demand streaming for desktop use without 'installing' in the conventional sense and without affecting the five-device allocation. In US money, the Small Business Premium costs $15/user/month, or $150/user/year ($12.50/user/month) on an annual contract.
By default business customers get a sub-domain hosted by Microsoft, but you can use you own with flexible options when it comes to DNS and email hosting. Either way, management is done using a web interface featuring the minimalistic Windows 8 look and feel. I found this a huge improvement over the previous implementation, with lots of help, guidance and navigational aids making it easy to add and delete user accounts, control access, customise team sites and perform other day-to-day tasks.
For my evaluation I used a mix of Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome, all of which worked as expected and, overall, I was very impressed by just how responsive the latest implementation of Office 365 appeared to be. Some setup work was required to integrate desktop implementations of Office on existing computers, but this can be initiated by users and is quick and painless. Likewise I had no problems at all downloading and installing the latest desktop Office apps or using Office on Demand.
When it comes to mobile integration, however, the picture is a little less rosy. On Windows platforms, such as Windows 8 Pro, RT and Windows Phone, all is well and Exchange/mobile integration is good. However, on some of the Android devices I tried I could only view rather than edit documents, and the consumer SkyDrive app wouldn't log into the business SkyDrive Pro service.
Living with Office 365
Because it's from Microsoft, my expectations for the latest Office 365 were high — especially in terms of compatibility and familiarity. The previous version fell short in both respects, but with this update Microsoft has come up with a business productivity platform that's ready to rival Google Apps.
As in the Google Apps test, I spent a lot of time using email or editing documents and for email. I mostly used the Outlook web app which, if you can live with the stark whiteness of the latest implementation, does just about everything you want it to. If you can't, then a desktop Outlook client is easy to configure and is included in the desktop download.
Similarly, I found the web app for Word very familiar and easy to use. Compatibility goes without saying and the functionality provided, although a subset of the desktop version, is more than good enough for most users. Much the same applies to the other components of the suite, although there were a few inconsistencies with the web apps around integration with documents created with older releases. Word worked fine with all of my documents, but I found I had to convert spreadsheets to the latest format to get the Excel app to work. The PowerPoint app, on the other hand, told me when conversion was necessary and then did it for me.
Sharing documents with colleagues is now straightforward, and I loved the ability to drag and drop documents onto the browser to upload them to the cloud. I also had a stab at customising and using a team site, a process that was a lot less challenging than I had expected. Likewise, creating a website using the templates and tools provided was a straightforward affair that delivered professional-looking results.
On beginning this evaluation I tried to work entirely within a browser with no desktop Office apps at all. However I did end up downloading and using the desktop programs as well — not because I absolutely had to, but because it simply made life a lot easier in the long run. And that's one of the major differences compared to Google Apps, which is architected to do everything in the cloud: Office 365 doesn't seem to want to let go altogether — at least not yet.
Small businesses will find it difficult to choose between Google's and Microsoft's online productivity/collaboration services — especially following the recent Office 365 revamp. Google Apps for Business still leads the way and seems better value, but things look different when you consider the cost of Microsoft's desktop Office apps — which many users still need. For businesses with little investment or interest in non-Windows devices, Office 365 now looks the better option.