Office 365 and Google Apps fight for supremacy

By John Leonard
28 May 2013 View Comments

Like much else in the enterprise IT world, office suites are moving cloud-wards. For business users there are many practical advantages to cloud-based suites, such as their tight integration with online collaboration tools and email, and the ability to work from mobile devices via apps. For administrators the grind of updating and patching becomes a thing of the past.

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The subscription model has long been the Holy Grail for software vendors too, smoothing out the payment cycle, tackling piracy and importantly – from their point of view – getting those laggards who refuse to upgrade to cough up.

The two giants in the online office suite arena are, of course, Microsoft with its Office 365 subscription-based services and Google, whose Google Apps suite has proved particularly popular with small business users.

Computing surveyed 160 IT decision makers across all sectors and sizes to discover the state of play between these two titans.

Battle of the behemoths

The bipartite dominance of the online office arena by Google and Microsoft can be seen in figure 1. Both Google Apps and Office 365 are already in use in about one-fifth of those organisations surveyed, while the nearest competitor, Apple’s iWork, is deployed by just two per cent.


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While current customer bases of the two leaders may be similar, the figures suggest that Microsoft is about to surge ahead. Thirty seven per cent said their organisation is likely to adopt Office 365 against just 15 per cent for Google Apps. Why should this be? One answer is that Google Apps simply got off to an earlier start (2007 compared with Microsoft’s 2011) and so a higher proportion of its natural user base will have already adopted the platform. Historically, Google Apps has been most enthusiastically taken up by smaller firms, as an alternative to Microsoft Office. Indeed a closer look at the research data shows that Apps users typically have fewer employees than those using Office 365. That said, there are plenty of firms with upward of 5,000 staff that are using the Google suite too.

As well as the earlier start, lower prices for the Google offering compared with the Small Business versions of Microsoft Office (initially Apps for Business was free) have certainly tempted smaller businesses down the Google road, as has the integration with the popular Gmail hosted email service and extensive cloud-based storage. No doubt Apps adoption will continue apace, especially in view of Google’s recent acquisition of QuickOffice, which allows editing of Microsoft Office formats.

But while Office 365 may have been late to the game, it is no longer playing catch-up. Many firms consider themselves “Microsoft houses” and these companies are now making the switch, often hand in hand with an Exchange or SharePoint upgrade or a move to hosted Outlook email. Microsoft has dominated the office suite scene for so long that many users will not seriously consider looking elsewhere. For them a shift to the cloud version, taking into account its integration with Yammer, Lync and Outlook, is a logical progression.

Installed Office – still a contender

While Google Apps consists purely of browser-based applications, Office 13 is still available for installation on a physical machine. There has been much speculation that Microsoft will soon abandon its locally-installed version altogether. Certainly this is a growing trend. Earlier this month Adobe announced that its Creative Suite will no longer be available on a perpetual licence, meaning that users will have to pay an annual subscription fee to use Photoshop, Illustrator and other applications. However, Microsoft has stated that it is not about to follow suit – yet.

“Unlike Adobe, we think people’s shift from packaged software to subscription services will take time,” wrote Office spokesman Clint Patterson in a blog, going on to suggest that the hybrid status quo might last a decade.

If the Computing survey is representative, Patterson is right to be cautious. Asked whether cloud-based office suites provide sufficient functionality and performance for all uses, only four per cent responded in the affirmative, whereas a full 42 per cent said that most employees will still need a PC-based suite, and 46 per cent suggested that the offline option is essential for a few users at least (figure 2).


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Power users of spreadsheets who employ macros and VBA scripting will find the cloud and app versions of both Office and Apps lacking in functionality, as will those who habitually work on very large spreadsheets or databases. Editing large complex documents is also more convenient offline, and not all employees can rely on internet connectivity. Then there are those many organisations that will always need to keep sensitive information in-house, and out of the cloud.


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As figure 3 shows, 26 per cent would only select an online suite if it were compatible with an offline version. These numbers illustrate a certain reticence about moving away from the tried and trusted PC-based format, with lingering concerns over issues of reliability, control and disruption. In fact, some of these concerns may no longer be valid and will doubtless diminish in due course. In the past, for example, it was certainly possible that documents could be lost in the event of a connectivity failure, but they are now backed up instantaneously in all serious cloud suites.

[Next page: pricing, collaboration and cloud storage]

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