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Office 365 vs. Google Docs Showdown: Feature by Feature

With Tuesday's launch of Office 365, Microsoft is ready to go head-to-head with Google on its own turf

Game on. Microsoft holds a virtual monopoly on office productivity software, but Google is virtually synonymous with the Web. Google has tried to challenge Microsoft with Google Docs, and now Microsoft is taking the battle onto Google's turf with the cloud-based Office 365. It's go time, as Microsoft released its suite Tuesday.

After spending several seasons with Office 365 in beta, testing form, as well as with Google Docs, here's how the two sets of tools compare. (See this story for side-by-side comparisons of Microsoft's and Google's suites.)

Features

The actual features and functionality of the tools have a lot of bearing on which productivity suite you choose. The Word Web App is more visually appealing and polished than its Google counterpart, but overall the two seem roughly equivalent in features.

I created a sample presentation in both the PowerPoint Web App and Google Docs Presentation. The PowerPoint Web App immediately presented me with a diverse selection of attractive themes to choose from. Google defaulted to plain black text on a plain white background. I clicked Format -- Presentation Settings -- Change Theme, but the options available were not as impressive.

As I added slides and created content, I inserted an image. In Google Presentations, the image filled the whole slide and I had to manually adjust it to fit the available area, but the PowerPoint Web App was smart enough to size the image automatically.

When push comes to shove, the features of the Office Web Apps in Office 365 are pretty much the same as what Google Docs has to offer. However, Microsoft makes key features easier to get to, and works more intuitively. For users already familiar with Microsoft Office, the Office Web Apps will be a comfortable fit.

Browser Compatibility

Both Office 365 and Google Docs are Web-based platforms, and they will work from any Web browser...more or less. It should not come as any surprise that Google Docs excels in the Chrome browser while Microsoft Office 365 works best in Internet Explorer. It makes sense that each would make sure--first and foremost--that their online productivity tools are optimized for performance and functionality in their own browser.

I opened both Office 365 and Google Docs in Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome for comparison. In Internet Explorer, Office 365 works fine. Google Docs seems to work for my purposes, but there is a nagging yellow warning bar across the top letting me know that Internet Explorer does not support all features of Google Docs.

In Chrome, both productivity platforms work as expected, but Firefox is another story. I didn't have any problem logging in and using Office Web Apps in Office 365, but I was unable to log in to Google Docs from Firefox 5. I got redirected to an error page claiming something about my browser not accepting cookies or something.

Given that Office Web Apps and Office 365 work on all three, while Google Docs claims it is only partially functional in Internet Explorer, and won't log in at all on Firefox, the edge here goes to Microsoft.

File Fidelity

This is a slam dunk for Microsoft. Sorry Google.

This is a Microsoft Office world. Even if you use an alternative office productivity solution like Google Docs or LibreOffice, the vast majority of the world uses Microsoft Office. The usefulness and value of your alternative solution is measured by how well it works with Microsoft Office. If files that are sent back and forth between partners, peers, or customers, end up with formatting issues, it creates frustration and requires unnecessary effort to fix.

I took the same DOCX Word file from my local computer and uploaded it to both Google Docs and the Word Web App. The file opened fine in both tools. I made some formatting changes--some bold text, some italic text, some highlighted text--and I inserted an image, then I saved it and downloaded it back to my PC. When I opened it in Word 2010 again, the Word Web App file looked exactly like it should, but the Google Docs file had a different font, different line spacing, and jacked formatting.

It doesn't hurt, either, that with the Word Web App I can just click a button on the ribbon bar to open the file in Word rather than having to download it.

Real-Time Collaboration

This is the primary selling point of Google Docs, and is the main area where Google should easily outshine Microsoft.

Google Docs can be shared with any other Google account. The users who share a file can all access and work with it simultaneously. Each user is assigned a unique color so you can easily identify who is making changes to what. You can also open a bar on the right side of the screen to chat with your collaborators. Microsoft lets you share files with anyone, and also offers real-time collaboration and chat capability with co-authors.

Google has Google Chat and Google Voice features built in to Gmail, so users can instant message or do audio / video calls with their contacts. This is an area, though, where Office 365--with the Lync 2010 client--beats Google. The integrated instant messaging, audio / video conferencing, and Web-session whiteboarding features, combined with real-time presence information give Microsoft a slight edge.

The net result is that Microsoft offers more and better real-time collaboration than Google.

Cost

Office 365 starts at $6 per user per month for the Professional and Small Business plan. The Medium Business and Enterprise plans range from $10 to $27 per user per month. No matter how you slice it, those numbers add up to a lot more than free--which is the price for Google Docs.

The $72 per year per person is a significant cost savings over the equivalent cost of purchasing and maintaining the server and software infrastructure it would require to deliver the tools and services in Office 365--never mind the cost of the salary for the IT admin to run it all. But, for individuals, or smaller organizations, those numbers still add up quickly when compared to zero.

The flip side of that coin, though, is that you get what you pay for. When Gmail is offline, or the Google Docs server crashes, you may get an apology from Google. Microsoft is putting its money where its proverbial mouth is and financially backing a 99.9 percent uptime guarantee for the Office 365 service.

The Verdict

While Microsoft and Google are each trying to encroach on the other's turf, in a battle for supremacy of Web-based office productivity, the office productivity trumps the Web-based part. Ultimately, the winner of the smackdown is a matter of subjective factors that will vary from one individual or organization to the next.

With the possible exception of cost, it seems that Microsoft has an edge in almost every category, but both Microsoft Office 365 and Google Docs have their pros and cons. Weigh the benefits of each, and carefully consider which online productivity platform is the right one for you.


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