A few years ago, the suggestion that Google could produce a viable alternative to Microsoft Office would have been laughable – but its Apps suite has become a valid and lauded business tool. No wonder Microsoft is fighting back against this specific threat with Office 365.
Office 365 isn’t a new version of the Microsoft desktop suite: it’s a cloud service that includes online versions of the tools that IT professionals the world over have come to love, and sometimes hate. You also benefit from online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook – and some subscriptions include the desktop-based Office Professional Plus 2010.
Google Apps for Business provides a similar suite of products and services. There’s Gmail with Postini spam and malware filtering, Calendar and Contacts, Google Docs, Chat, Groups mailing lists and Sites (for both intranet and public websites).
So to the big question: which is best for your needs? That’s what this feature aims to find out, as we put both through real-world tests and pitch them in battle in all the key areas.
As cloud services, both Google Apps and Office 365 are managed online. Despite the simple layout, the Google Apps control panel is confusing until you learn where everything is.
Options are scattered between Domain Settings, Settings, Advanced tools and the various links from the Dashboard tab. To make matters worse, the Dashboard is cluttered with adverts for optional tools in the Google App marketplace, as well as adverts for new features.
Office 365’s admin console is much cleaner, with a pane for switching between managing users, services and domains, plus clear explanations of what the main management tools are for. There are also handy shortcuts at the bottom of the window, and links to relevant resources and community discussions.
Google Apps has two levels of administration rights: the “Super Admin” who has full access, and standard administrators to whom you can delegate administration tasks. You can give different users a different mix of rights, but you have to remember who can do what.
Office 365 has five named admin roles. You can give someone the rights to manage billing, passwords, users or services separately if you don’t want them to have full admin rights. If you need more granularity, you can also set up administrator roles for Discovery Management, Records Management, Unified Messaging Management and other tasks in the Exchange control panel. It’s more complex than Google Apps, but enterprises will welcome the option.
WINNER: OFFICE 365. Microsoft’s administration interface is better organised, and easier to handle when delegating management rights to others.
Setup and User Management
Google Apps’ setup guide walks you through tasks such as verifying the domain you’re using, creating user accounts and changing your MX records to point to Gmail (you need your own domain to use Google Apps). It’s mostly clear and simple, but duplicated instructions and a sometimes circuitous interface make setup a fragmented experience.
The Postini spam service setup wizard tells you it may take up to an hour, and again you have to change the MX records to redirect mail to the Postini service, and configure some settings in Google Apps email by hand. It screams for automation and indicates that Google still hasn’t fully integrated the Postini acquisition with its platform.
Office 365’s Forefront Online Protection for Exchange, SharePoint and Lync Online are running by default, so all you have to do is create or migrate users. You only need to configure settings if you want an optional vanity domain, to get finer control, or if you’re integrating with on-premises servers. Thankfully, the guides to doing this are clear and detailed.
You can create Office 365 users individually – assigning admin rights and turning on services for them at the same time – or as a batch by importing a CSV file. You even get PowerShell cmdlets that let you configure Office 365 from the command line.
To create Google Apps users, you can set them up one by one in the control panel or import a CSV file, but most enterprises will use Google Apps Directory Sync to get user details from AD or Lotus Domino (which the setup guide doesn’t cover). This is a one-way sync, and you have to leave the tool running on your local server, make changes to users in AD and propagate them up to Google Apps.
To migrate mailboxes, you have to run an Outlook sync utility for each user individually, and you can’t migrate distribution lists, so you have to recreate them. It’s initially confusing which tools you need for synchronising and migrating different information and settings to Google Apps, especially as the help pages often refer to old tools that have been replaced.
What Google Apps calls “groups” are merely mailing lists. To control who gets what Google services, you need to set up organisation units (OUs). These cover both the core offerings, such as Gmail, and the range of other Google tools – such as YouTube and Picasa. Note that your business will be bound by such services’ terms and conditions if your users sign in with their work Google Apps account, so OUs are useful for disabling access if you don’t want to accept those terms.
You can also use OUs to restrict which domains users can send email to. You can’t use them to control any other settings, though, so they’re not as powerful as AD groups. You can’t delete an OU without moving or deleting the users first, but deleting a user does give you the choice of deleting their documents or moving them to another user.
Both Microsoft and Google promise single sign-on. If you have AD and ADFS2, Office 365 users can use their Windows login to sign onto the local network (including any business apps you’ve integrated with that login) and to Office 365 services. Your Google Apps login gives you access to all the online Google services, plus services that aren’t part of Google Apps, so long as the administrator allows this.
WINNER: OFFICE 365. Microsoft’s product is easier to set up and integrate into your company’s existing infrastructure.
Mail, Server, Malware and Spam
Office 365 has a simple interface for basic admin options such as managing passwords, but you can also use the full Exchange Online interface. This is identical to the web interface for Exchange Server, so it will be very familiar to Exchange admins. You get a comprehensive set of tools for setting up features such as role-based access control, transport rules (such as adding disclaimers to external email) and reports to help you track down any problems, along with auditing logs for compliance. Or you can stick to the basics and be set up in minutes.
Gmail has vastly fewer options because you don’t control a mail server, although you do have some control over routing and mail gateway settings. The options are mostly on the level of setting up a custom URL for users, choosing whether they can use Gmail Labs and Chat, and allowing Docs results to show up in a Gmail search. With Google looking after the mail server, most businesses won’t need more admin options.
Both Google Apps and Office 365 have a mailbox limit of 25GB. There isn’t an archiving option in Gmail, but with Office 365 you have a choice between third-party archiving services, or a specific Office 365 plan with unlimited storage for email archiving.
Google Apps for Business includes Postini for spam and malware detection. The Postini admin console is separate from the main Google Apps console, and has tabs for viewing messages detected as junk or viruses in the past three days, a week, or for as long as it keeps records.
For spam, you can whitelist individual senders, domains or mailing lists, and block specific addresses or domains. You can also set up inbound and outbound content filters for specific words, phrases or patterns, and create attachment filters by size or type. You can choose five levels of spam blocking, from lenient to very aggressive, and use filters to put more emphasis on blocking explicit, “racially insensitive” and financial spam.
The Forefront admin console is separate and has a very different interface from the rest of Office 365; it’s confusing for anything except checking quarantined email. In return, you get the powerful Forefront Online Protection for Exchange tools. These not only provide malware and spam filtering, but also give options to whitelist specific IP addresses, options for auditing and tracing messages, and extensive filtering rules for both inbound and outbound email. You can therefore write rules to stop your users from emailing confidential information, such as credit card numbers.
WINNER: TIE. Gmail is perfect if you want to get up and running as quickly as possible, while Office 365 provides fine-grained controls and capabilities that will suit more fastidious organisations
SharePoint Online combines web page authoring for external sites with a full document management tool. This includes libraries, lists, templates, discussion tools, shared calendars, RSS feeds, workflow, check in/out options and version control – plus powerful search options. It’s an instant way to make your business more intelligent –for example, by avoiding such annoyances as file duplication.
It also aids communication. Your Team Site includes pages for each user where they can blog, share links and documents, and access their files on the move. The range of options is more complex than Google’s offering, but it’s also far more powerful.
Google Docs has no direct equivalent to SharePoint Online. Sites is a nice simple tool for creating internal or external web pages, while Google Docs allows you to control whether users can publish or share documents outside the business, and whether documents default to being private or public. Otherwise, sharing is all ad hoc and under users’ control.
WINNER: OFFICE 365. This isn’t clear cut, however. Office 365 has much more capable sharing features, but these are correspondingly more complicated to manage. Some will prefer Google Apps’ simplicity.
Chat & Talk
Google Chat is the same simple but powerful tool available to the public; users can see the presence of Google Apps contacts inside Gmail and start a text, voice or video chat from there, once they’ve downloaded the plugin. Alternatively, they can use the Windows Google Talk software for text and voice chat or file transfer
Microsoft’s Lync Online is more powerful. The extensive management options let you choose whether users can transfer files, make audio or video calls, and talk to colleagues or people outside the business.
Users can see each other’s presence and status in Outlook and Outlook Web Access (including information from Exchange calendars), and in any Office app where you’re collaborating. It’s possible to start a chat, voice or video call from there or from the Lync client. Microsoft is also promising Lync clients for a range of smartphones, offering IM first and voice features later.
Lync Online automatically federates with Windows Messenger and AOL for instant messaging. It can also federate with on-premises Lync servers, if permitted by the server admin. Google Apps can federate with any XMPP service, but to make it work you have to edit the SRV record in your domain by hand (or ask your domain host to do it for you). You then get federation with all the services Google is connected to – you don’t get to choose which are allowed or blocked.
WINNER: OFFICE 365. Apps’ messaging and chat features are fine for most users, but for manageability, Office 365 is better.
Online apps are primitive compared to the richness of the full Office suite. In general, the features of the Office Web Apps and Google Docs are broadly similar, but while many like the sparse interface of Google Docs for its simplicity, the Office Web Apps have the edge in sophistication.
Create a PowerPoint presentation in the Office Web Apps and you get good-looking themes, with the images you have placed automatically sized to fit. A Google Docs presentation starts out in plain black and white, and the designs aren’t as appealing.
Office Web Apps make inserting images from your hard drive the same simple experience that it is in a local app. Google Docs gives you a wider choice for inserting images from a URL or a Google image search in a document, but it’s overall a clunkier experience.
Sharing is better integrated in Google Docs, with a big blue Share button on the page that opens a pop-up dialog box. The Office Web Apps make you save the document and take you away from the editor to choose who to share it with, and take you back to viewing, but not editing, the document. Updates appear live in Google Docs; this also happens in the OneNote Web App, but the other Microsoft Web Apps make you save your own changes to see edits by other users.
There are many features in both Outlook and Outlook Web that are missing from Gmail, from macros to Quick Steps. Gmail equivalents tend to have fewer features, which some prefer because they’re simpler. Gmail’s stars, labels and priority buttons let you do the same things as Outlook’s flags, categories and folders.
Google Calendar can include shared resources – such as meeting rooms – which you create by typing in the details one at a time. Oddly, there isn’t a dropdown picklist to ensure the resources are given consistent names, or a wizard to help with the complex naming conventions, so you could end up with six “conference rooms” and one “meeting room”.
Exchange Online has templates for creating resources such as rooms (as well as equipment that isn’t in a fixed location); you can even say which users can reserve rooms without permission and how often.
The Google Calendar features for end users aren’t as powerful – or as complex – as Outlook’s, but you get the important options, such as overlaid calendars and recurring appointments. The Quick Add tool lets you type in a sentence, including the day and date of what you need to do, which then sets an event on the right day at the right time. This is a phenomenal time-saver.
WINNER: TIE. Microsoft’s Web Apps are more sophisticated than Google’s equivalents, but Google Docs has better sharing and collaboration features. Exchange Online has a plethora of configurable options, but many will prefer the simpler approach of Google Apps.
Office & Working Offline
Depending on which plan you sign up for, Office 365 can include download rights for the Professional Plus version of Office 2010, which includes OneNote, Publisher and Access as well as Word, Excel and PowerPoint. You can load and save documents from all of them into the SharePoint Online site included in Office 365, and use the online collaboration features to edit documents at the same time.
Also available are the publicly accessible Office Web Apps: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. All but PowerPoint let multiple users edit the same document at the same time. SharePoint synchronisation neatly takes care of making documents available offline, as well as accessing them from anywhere online.
Although offline access to Gmail and Google Docs is only available (for the time being) to Google employees, Google recognises that offline document access matters. You can run software to sync Outlook with Gmail, Calendar and Contacts, and to move Outlook Notes to Google Docs (although they’re read-only, and it doesn’t sync notes filed in folders).
There’s a connector toolbar for Office that lets you sync documents to Google Docs, but it isn’t as polished as the SharePoint integration, and converting files into Google Docs for editing online doesn’t preserve all document features (the same thing happens when you open an email attachment in Google Docs).
WINNER: OFFICE 365. Microsoft’s offline support is far from polished, essentially being dependent on SharePoint and subscription access to the full Office suite. However, it remains far more capable than Google’s crude offline tools.
Service levels & Support
The Google Apps dashboard repeatedly told us that there might be a problem with an unspecified Google Apps service; whenever we clicked through to the dashboard, all the services showed as having no issues, but seeing the warning virtually all the time was concerning. Office 365 has a similar service health dashboard; neither service had any major outages or failures while we were testing them, but Office 365 didn’t keep warning us of non-existent problems.
Both services promise 99.9% availability. Google Apps measures this on a monthly basis, with a credit of three days of service if the SLA isn’t met in a month; Office 365 credits 25%, 50% or 100% of the service cost if the SLA falls below 99.9%, 99% and 95% respectively.
Google Apps has no planned downtime; Office 365 does schedule maintenance when usage is likely to be low and dates and times are listed five days in advance in the support area.
Support is definitely better with Office 365. You can request support via the admin console and your requests are managed there, but 24/7 phone support is also available, with response times from 15 minutes to four hours, depending on severity.
Google Apps also has 24/7 phone support, but only for critical problems that involve more than half your users and affect the Google Apps web services. If the problem is with mobile emails you’re stuck with email support, which doesn’t cover weekends.
WINNER: OFFICE 365, but only just. It’s tough to judge how reliable a cloud service is, but Microsoft’s support has better availability.
Getting continuous, instant improvements is one of the benefits of using a cloud service, but if you’re supporting users you might prefer Microsoft’s approach where updates come at regular intervals, and you can choose whether to adopt them immediately or by a specific date.
This underlines one key and fundamental difference between the two services, which has little to do with features:
Office 365 has the professional feel of a service planned in advance and designed for administrators; Google Apps has the feel of a service that has grown by leaps and bounds, but sometimes in a rather haphazard way that’s not always as consistent as you may wish.
Both services are powerful but they suit different audiences. If your business already uses Microsoft tools, Office 365 is the logical progression, letting you integrate with and make the most of your existing investments. It’s a comprehensive, powerful, end-to-end cloud platform for business that doesn’t make you do everything online, which many businesses find a step too far. You can have all the power of Exchange and SharePoint without the bother of configuring and running either of them.
Google Apps, meanwhile, is a better fit for businesses starting from scratch online, with no legacy systems, who can benefit from its simplicity without having to keep the service in sync with on-premises tools. But, as we’ve seen throughout this feature, it definitely has limits.