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 percent uptime.
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 the applications.
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 their applications.
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 account.