The general availability release of Microsoft's Office 365 service brought the search business rivals into closer competition, but when considered in their entirety, the dueling product offerings still have more differences than similarities.
Over the past several years, one of the most-watched, and yet least
substantial, business application rivalries has been that between Microsoft and
Google. In one corner, we've had Microsoft, with its lineup of ubiquitous,
category-defining on-premises server and thick-client productivity
applications, and in the other corner, we've had Google, with its popular
Webmail service and set of fledgling online office tools.
The general availability release of Microsoft's Office 365 service,
earlier this month, brought the search business rivals into closer competition,
but when considered in their entirety, the dueling product offerings still have
more differences than similarities.
Microsoft may have deprecated this motto in favor of more cloud-centric
terms, but "Software Plus Services" is the slogan that best sums up Microsoft's
cloud applications approach. Every component that comprises Office 365 is
available in both Microsoft-hosted and on-premises editions, and while much of
Office 365 is accessible through almost any Web browser, the organizations
poised to extract the most value from Office 365 will be running Microsoft's
full stack of thick-client productivity applications.
For Google's part, it's the marketing slogan for the company's
Chromebook devices, "Nothing but the Web," that best characterizes Google's
Apps offerings. The Web giant's cloud resides solely in Google data centers,
and while Google offers a handful of Windows client integration points, Google
Apps tend to rely on a Web browser and live Internet connection.
A great deal of attention has been paid to the Web-based word
processing, spreadsheet and presentation tools included with Google Apps and
with most editions of Office 365, but based on eWEEK Labs tests of both
services over the past several months, we must conclude that at this point,
neither set of online productivity tools is mature enough to fully replace fat
client word processors, spreadsheets or presentation applications due to their
feature limitations and lack of offline support.
At the heart of the Office 365-Google Apps showdown is hosted
messaging, and both services perform their core email and calendaring tasks
well, with good support for Web-, desktop- and mobile-based clients, key
server-side features such as spam and malware filtering, message archiving,
Web-based administrative controls, and service level agreements pegged 99.9
The choice of which service that best fits your organization will boil
down to cost, cloud vs. on-premises deployment needs and client access options.
Beyond messaging, both services offer a slate of collaboration-focused
features, including collaborative workspaces and document stores, and unified
communications functionality. eWEEK Labs will focus on these specific features
in a future story.
All in for the Cloud
Google Apps exist solely as cloud-based applications, hosted from
Google's data centers-choosing these apps means choosing Google as a hosting partner, which
may give pause to organizations accustomed to more control over their
infrastructure. However, Google has amassed quite a bit of experience, to say
the least, in administering these services, and has been running the
business-oriented edition of its Apps since 2007.
Over this time, during which eWEEK Labs has maintained a standard
edition Google Apps domain for testing, Google has rolled out a large number of
new and modified Apps features with little impact on the uptime or usability of
In contrast, organizations upgrading to Office 365 from Microsoft's
predecessor hosted applications service, the Business Productivity Online
Standard suite, have been provided with a 30-page migration document, which
lays out the URL changes and potential client-side software upgrades required
to complete the transition. Judged by the work required for a typical
enterprise software transition, the migration steps are modest, and according
to Microsoft, the Exchange 2010 foundation is more amenable to the cloud than
were the Exchange 2007 bits backing BPOS.
However, given that Office 365 is comprised of a collection of server
components that are also available in on-premises and third-party hosted
versions, Microsoft faces a greater set of challenges managing future updates
across these multiple channels than does Google, and but only time will tell
how smoothly Microsoft will manage the process.
With that said, the flexibility of choosing between self-hosting and
multiple hosting providers may prove advantageous for organizations that wish
to leave the door open to "firing" their hosting provider without surrendering
Client Side Story
Given the large amount of time that workers spend logged into their
email applications, it's no surprise that choice of messaging client is a top
user concern when looking ahead at a cloud application's migration.
Fortunately, both Office 365 and Google Apps offer client access options that
span desktop, Web and mobile platforms.
Not surprisingly, the primary client for accessing Office 365 mail and
calendaring is Outlook. For Windows systems, Office 365 requires Outlook 2007
SP3 or later, and on OS X machines, the service requires Entourage 2008 or
Outlook 2011. In our tests with Office 365, Outlook performs in much the same
way as it would from an on-premises or third-party hosted installation of
Exchange. Office 365 also supports non-Microsoft email clients via POP3 or IMAP
protocols, and supports read-only calendar sharing via iCal.
Google Apps also provides POP3 and IMAP access
to email, which enables users to access the service through Outlook or most
other messaging clients. As those protocols only apply to email, Google offers
Apps customers a client application, Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook,
which keeps contacts, calendars and email in sync. In eWEEK Labs' tests, the
tool performed well, with the notable exception of task items, which it did not
sync. For more information on the sorts of data the tool does and does not
sync, see http://tinyurl.com/4875wdf.
On the Web, the mail client for Office 365 is the Exchange 2010 edition
of Outlook Web Access, which re-creates the look and feel of the desktop-bound
Outlook fairly well, and, unlike previous versions of OWA, boasts very good
support for browsers beyond Internet Explorer.
For Google's part, the Web-based client for Apps is Gmail, which
differs from Outlook and OWA in several key areas, such as its
conversation-based message view and its labels metaphor in place of folders.
For users more comfortable with more traditional message views and folder
structures, Google has, in the past year, added options for unbundling the
message view and for enabling nested labels to recreate the folders experience,
both in the Web client and on desktop-based clients.
The user-access experience on mobile devices is similar for both Office
365 and Google Apps, as both services tap Microsoft's Activesync protocol for
syncing mail, calendar items and contacts on iOS and Android devices. For
Android users, Google also provides tablet- and smartphone-tailored native
applications, which approximate fairly well the experience of the Web-based
Gmail client. In addition, Google's mobile Web application for Gmail works well
on multiple platforms, and provides for limited offline access-a feature
lacking from its full-size Web applications.
For BlackBerry users, Office 365 includes a freely available Hosted
BlackBerry for Exchange Online service. For its part, Google makes available a
Google Apps Connector for existing BlackBerry Enterprise Server deployments.
However, eWEEK Labs has not tested either BlackBerry access option.
The enterprise Office 356 packages start at $10 per user, per month for
email, calendar and SharePoint, with Office Web Apps available for an
additional $6 per user, per month. For $24 per user, per month, organizations
get the full package, which includes hosted Exchange, SharePoint and the
traditional thick-client edition of Office, as well as unlimited email storage
and Access Services in SharePoint.
Office 365 starts at $6 per user, per year for the small business
package, which includes a full slate of components and scales up to 25 users.
However, the small business edition lacks SSL encryption for its Office Web
Apps and for SharePoint, a considerable drawback.
Google Apps costs $50 per user, per year, or $5 per user, per month.
There's also an ad-supported, free tier, which allows up to10 users per