Review: Microsoft Office 365 vs. Google Apps

Web browser or Office suite? Microsoft's and Google's office productivity and collaboration clouds pit rich and complex against simple and lean

Two and a half years ago, when InfoWorld first pitted Office 365 against Google Apps, I likened Office 365 to the Queen Elizabeth 2 and Google Apps to a sailboat. In the intervening years, both have changed but in remarkably different respects.

Office 365 has turned into an 800-pound gorilla, with loads of new features and new options. Back then, Office 365 seemed like a cobbled-together mA(c)lange of Office 2000 and Exchange Server, with a few goodies tacked on the side. Now it's richer, smoother, more tightly integrated -- and one of Microsoft's major profit centers. Microsoft's revenue from Office 365 is now measured in the billions.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Windows 8.1 review: New version, same mess | Windows 8 left you blue? Check out Windows Red, InfoWorld's plan to fix Microsoft's troubled OS | For quick, smart takes on the news you'll be talking about, check out InfoWorld TechBrief -- subscribe today. ]

The changes in Google Apps, in direct contrast, are much more subtle. It's still a small, light, considerably cheaper, one-size-fits-all proposition. I've seen significant strides in Office file compatibility and a few new features, but Google's still taking a minimalist approach. While there's nothing wrong with minimalism, particularly with budgets as tight as they are these days, you need to make sure Google Apps can do what you need it to do, before you commit.

At the risk of stretching the metaphor, Office 365 has added several new decks, a top-to-bottom refurbishment, and a couple of new lifeboats. Google Apps has a fresh coat of paint and a new sail. But the original propositions have remained the same: Office 365 aims to be all things to all companies, while Google Apps is content to offer key capabilities without the bloat and complexity.

Which of these propositions meshes more closely with the needs of business users? Back in June 2011, if you asked a handful of execs whether their people need to run Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, you probably would have heard a resounding if unreflective "Yes!" Nowadays, the status of the Office triumvirate isn't nearly as secure. Most execs (at least in my experience) now realize that full-blown Office is overkill for many of their employees. While Office hasn't yet been relegated to the bit bucket of history, the overarching need for Office is lower now than it has been in the past two decades.

That's why I've approached this review from a new perspective. Here I look at both packages' applicability in a mixed environment, where only a small percentage -- perhaps 10 or 20 percent -- of the people using the package actually need Office. Most people, most of the time, don't need Word's or Excel's ginormous feature set. There's no need to swing a sledgehammer when an ordinary hammer will do.

A note about Apple and the iWorks suite: While iWorks contains applications that handle the basics -- and they're now free for just about everybody -- the apps aren't nearly as capable as the Google Apps, and there's no "glue" to build the kind of infrastructure most businesses (and many individuals) need. It isn't clear at this point if Apple's going to actively pursue the market. We'll just have to wait and see if the company builds it out.

Sorting through the Office 365 SKUsIf you're looking for a simple straight-up comparison of features and prices, you clearly don't understand the game. While Google Apps for Business remains relatively straightforward, with four packages and identical features, Office 365's ecosystem is starting to look like an Exchange Server CAL contract. I fully expect books, seminars, and postgrad university courses are in the offing, to help hapless customers pick from what's available.

Here's the supersimplified list:

Office 365 Small Business, for up to 25 users, does not include the Office 2013 desktop apps (though you would be forgiven for assuming otherwise). However, if you already have licenses for Office 2013, 2010, or even 2007, or Office 2011 or 2008 for Mac, you can use those suites with Office 365. Paying for Office 365 Small Business will let you manage your domain's email and share calendars, with 50GB of email storage per user. (There's no Active Directory, which may be a blessing.) You also get online videoconferencing and free website hosting. SkyDrive Pro comes with the package, with 25GB of file storage space, as does SharePoint with shared email and document folders. All of this costs $60 per year per person.

The other services Microsoft mentions as being included in the Office 365 Small Business package are, uh, iffy. Online conferencing, screen sharing, and instant messaging are available and free from many vendors, including Microsoft/Skype. Office Web Apps are free for anybody who signs up for a free SkyDrive account (which provides 7GB of storage per person). The mobile apps on offer work only on Windows Phones, at least at this point.

Office 365 Small Business Premium, for up to 25 users, adds subscriptions for the latest desktop versions of Office for each user. That's probably what you expected with Office 365. Each subscription can install up to five copies of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Lync on PCs or Macs. You also get client-only subscriptions (that is, no server involved) for OneNote, Publisher, and Access. The Office 365 Small Business Premium package also includes licenses for Office Mobile for iPhone and Android (which InfoWorld's Galen Gruman describes as "pathetically bad"). This package also includes Office 365 On Demand, which lets you stream the desktop Office programs to any PC or Mac; they disappear when you log off. Office 365 Small Business Premium is listed at $150 per user per year.

Office 365 Midsize Business can take your company up to 300 users, with all of the Small Business Premium features, plus Active Directory to centrally manage user credentials, data access permissions, single sign-on, and synchronization. The bill goes up to $180 per user per year.

Business Class Email/Exchange Online Plan 1, for an unlimited number of users, drops back to a very limited feature set. You get email management and shared calendars, plus Active Directory, but no Office suite licenses. Price is $48 per user per year.

Office 365 Enterprise E1, for an unlimited number of users, still doesn't include Office licenses. You get the features in the Business Class Email package, plus online conferencing, screen sharing, and instant messaging (which, as noted earlier, are available free from many sources). You get SkyDrive Pro, which offers 25GB per user, plus tools to control access to the data. And you get SharePoint with shared email and document folders, free website hosting, plus Yammer Enterprise. That's all of the glue, but none of the Office apps, for $96 per person per year.

Finally, the big kahuna, Office 365 Enterprise E3, offers all of the above E1 features plus an Office subscription for each user (one subscription covers up to five PCs or Macs). You also get the iPhone and Android Office Mobile apps, archiving and legal hold capabilities for email, a legal compliance tool called eDiscovery Center that puts all of your main Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync data in one place, voicemail, and the Power BI tools for data analysis. Office 365 Enterprise E3 runs $240 per person per year.

Still need licenses for the Office desktop programs? You can mix and match any of the above plans with subscriptions to Office 365 ProPlus or you can buy (er, rent) Office 365 ProPlus without any of the other plans. Each subscription can install up to five copies of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Lync on PCs or Macs, plus client-only subscriptions (no server) for OneNote, Publisher, and Access. You also get Office Mobile for iPhone and Android. If you already have a Software Assurance license, you can move it over to a new Office 365 ProPlus subscription.

I won't even mention the Exchange Online plan, the SharePoint Online plan, Lync Online, or the Kiosk plan. I've also glossed over the Volume Licensing plans for Office 2013 and Office Professional Plus 2013, with or without Software Assurance.

There are also specialized versions of Office 365 Government, Office 365 Education (as of Dec. 1, 2013, schools with Office 365 ProPlus or Office 365 Professional Plus licensed for all of their staff and faculty can get free Office 365 ProPlus licenses for all of their students), Office 365 University (four years of Office 365 on two PCs or Macs for $80 -- and you can renew the four-year subscription once, as long as you renew before you graduate), and Office 365 for Nonprofits (free to qualifying organizations).

Free trials are available for Office 365 Professional Plus (60 days), Office 365 ProPlus (30 days, max 25 users), Office 365 Small Business Premium (30 days, max 10 users), Office 365 Midsize Business (30 days, max 25 users), and E3 (30 days, max 25 users).

Confused yet? Make sure you don't forget the lowly Office 365 Home Premium (30-day trial), which includes the software -- Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook, plus stand-alone OneNote, Publisher, and Access, five licenses per subscription -- without the glue, at $80 per year.

Google Apps for Business optionsIn startling contrast, Google Apps for Business has just two primary options. The basic package costs $50 per user per year, and the Premium package costs $120 per user per year. The contents of the basic package haven't changed much in years. Basic includes Google Docs for word processing, spreadsheets, slideshows, forms, and data storage (all free at; Gmail and Calendar (free at; Google Groups (also free); a website building utility called Sites; the Postini spam filter; and a video-sharing app. Those paying for Google Apps for Business get 30GB of storage per user, allocated across both email and general online storage. There's a free 30-day trial.

The Premium package includes Vault, an email management package that helps with legal and compliance requirements, archives, domainwide search, retention, and restoring deleted messages. Vault lives entirely in the cloud; there's no application to install.

There's also a Google Apps Marketplace, an online store that sells apps designed to run with Google Apps.

Google Apps for Government, for governmental organizations in the United States only, has full FISMA accreditation and costs $50 per user per year. Similar versions are available in some other countries.

When you pay for Google Apps, you pay for 30GB of Google Drive and email storage space for each mail account, for the programs that let you manage an unlimited number of email accounts on your domain, and for phone support. Google Apps for Education and Google Apps for Nonprofits are free. All packages can handle an unlimited number of users.

What's new in Office 365At its most fundamental, the major change is that Office 365 now includes Office 2013. With a slew of interesting new features and a handful of dubious "improvements" that can easily be undone, the new Office suite makes it easier to put your data in the cloud where it will be right at home with the rest of Office 365. There are worthwhile features to make Office 2013 touch friendly, as well as changes to the plumbing that make it work better with the rest of Office 365.

Thanks to vast improvements to the Office suite's Click to Run (C2R) capabilities, it's faster and simpler to set up Office programs on licensed machines, to manage the programs (for example, add or remove machines from the authorized list), and to keep on top of patches (C2R apps check every time they're initiated and install patches as available). To date, Microsoft's track record on C2R patches has been much, much better than that for the standard Windows Update/WSUS route.

Don't let the term "Click to Run" confuse you. Office 365 installed by C2R puts the programs on your local drive. You don't need to be connected to the Internet in order to run all of your Office programs -- the streaming download typically occurs only once. You can, however, remove a machine from your authorized list, and that machine will no longer be able to run the Office 365 programs.

The Office apps are now bound together by the user's Microsoft account, so recent document lists, custom dictionaries, and some settings travel from machine to machine -- in some cases, to the Office Web Apps as well. Save a Word doc on SkyDrive using your laptop, then pick it up with the Word Web App or a copy of Word on another machine; when you return later, Word is smart enough to offer to go back to the point where it was last edited.

New "Wave 15" (2013) versions of Exchange Server, Lync Server, and SharePoint bring dozens of worthwhile new features. Top on the list might be the streamlined (and Web-based) Exchange Administration Center, which has taken on new responsibility for managing public folders. The Outlook Web App picked up the ability to store messages locally and have everything updated when the computer reconnects to the Internet. The new Lync Web App lets users without the Lync client join and participate in meetings using just a browser. These are only a few of the most important improvements. Rest assured that all of the advances you see in on-premises server capabilities are being mirrored in Office 365.

1 2 3 Page 1
Page 1 of 3
7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon