A buyer’s guide.
Despite the emergence of instant messaging and online voice and video collaboration, email remains the most preferred and heavily used form for communicating among businesses, so choosing the right email system is important.
Google Gmail has a no-frills appeal that centred on its huge storage capacity compared to most on-premise business systems. The consumer version of Gmail offers 7GB and the business version a whopping 25GB, which Microsoft has been forced to match with Outlook Online.
Microsoft has managed to make Outlook Online look almost identical to its rich desktop namesake, with a more graphical interface. Outlook Online greatly benefits from Microsoft Lync Online, the messaging and conferencing platform. It is reviewed in this comparison with Google Voice and Google Chat, here.
Here is a table summarising the strengths of each system. The review continues below.
The Gmail interface is very basic – a list of subject headings in the main pane with sidebars on either side containing labels and shortcuts to instant messaging, voice conferencing, recent documents and upcoming appointments.
Some users migrating from on-premise email clients find the Gmail interface a little too text-heavy and deficient in the graphical promise of a graphical user interface (GUI).
GUI fans will appreciate Microsoft’s efforts to make Outlook Online a near replica of Outlook on the desktop, although the contextual menu reveals there are slightly fewer features available. It is a much easier interface to look at, though Gmail users will no doubt argue that they can see more information on a screen.
It should be noted that both online email programs can be used with nearly any desktop email client such as Mozilla Thunderbird, Apple Mail and so on. In this case emails are automatically synced between the cloud (online) and the hard drive of the computer, so you can write emails without having to be online.
Gmail and Outlook share a standard set of messaging features including setting rules for messages (Gmail calls it filtering), ignoring or muting conversations, and moving images to folders.
Gmail took a conceptual jump to using labels rather than folders which in some ways is more logical; you can add several labels to one message rather than having to copy one message into several folders, as Outlook requires. Emails can be dragged into labels and labels dragged onto emails, a neat touch.
Of course, rules and filters automate this process, and some people find the labels concept harder to grasp than the status quo of folder hierarchies.
Outlook Online has several new features for email, such as ignoring ongoing conversations (emails are deleted immediately); cleaning up repeat email trails at the bottom of long email chains; viewing emails in a “conversation view” that displays sent messages along with those received.
Gmail steps ahead with its ability to preview attachments within the email such as images and YouTube videos, which run in an in-built player without leaving the email screen. This is a big time saver as you don’t need to open every image to find the one that you’re after.
Another plus for Gmail is the priority inbox. Google will automatically assign importance to your emails and attaches a little marker just before the subject line to indicate the email’s level of importance. This is calculated on who you’ve emailed and chatted with most and which keywords appear frequently in the messages you opened recently.
You can also manually adjust a message’s importance to help train Gmail in its analysis. The idea behind the priority inbox is to make it easier to find the most important emails given that many inboxes are flooded with wanted but unimportant email such as newsletters, brochures and the like.
It’s a little too early to tell whether the priority inbox is a feature that will make a big difference to power email users or whether it will go the way of Google Buzz (mostly ignored) and Wave (now disbanded).
However, the priority inbox, like the array of minor Gmail plugins in the optional Google Labs section, is proof that Google is committed to improving the way email operates.
Gmail’s Contacts section is straightforward and clean. The standard fields are all there including multiple address, phone, website and IM details.
Outlook’s Contacts section has the standard array of fields, slightly more detailed than Gmail. Contacts can be sorted into groups, coloured categories and flagged individually for a follow-up by date or set time (such as tomorrow or next week).
A standout feature is the Outlook Social Connector, which synchronises contacts with information from social network updates. The connector pulls in data from Officetalk, My Site, Address Book and LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Live Messenger and adds it to the bottom of a contact.
Crucially, it can pull a profile photo from Facebook or LinkedIn, which suddenly means your contacts list is full of recognisable faces rather than a generic “insert photo here” icon.
The connector also displays a list of shared emails and attachments between the viewer and the contact.
Unfortunately the plugin for the Outlook Social Connector is only available for Windows platforms, so Mac users are out of luck. Microsoft says it is rushing to provide Mac equivalents of Lync Online (also PC-only at time of writing) and Outlook Social Connector but was unable to provide a firm date. The best indication is some time later this year.
The calendaring for Outlook Online and Google Gmail is very similar. Both applications can create events within emails and use scheduling assistants to find the best time for all attendees. Outlook Online adds another tab called Tracking which shows the email trails for each invite sent out and the email responses from attendees. Sometimes information relating to a meeting is contained in discussions following on from the original email invitation, such as the reasons why prospective attendees declined a meeting.
Both programs can share calendars between co-workers and post a calendar to the internet. This is very useful for communicating a live calendar to many people – a great tool for school sports teams and their training and game schedules, for example.
Outlook Online does a better job of displaying meeting details in the event preview window. It lists the attendees required and how many have accepted, tentatively accepted and declined, as well as showing its location.
A right-click on the meeting gives the option of instant messaging the event organiser. Integration with Lync Online means you can initiate instant messaging, voice or video conferencing and email with attendees from within the event window.
Google Calendar has a library of calendars which can be added for free to your own. These include national holiday schedules in over 30 countries and calendars for seven sports codes (Basketball has over 10 entries including the Turkish BK league).
These function almost identically although Outlook Online has the better interface. Both programs can create tasks from within emails, although only Outlook Online can turn a card from the contacts list into a task, which is potentially very useful.
Messaging and conferencing
Outlook Online’s greatest strength is the work Microsoft has done in integrating Outlook Online with its excellent communications tool, Microsoft Lync Online. For example, Lync Online automatically displays whether a person is in a meeting in their status based on their Outlook Online calendar.
That integration also makes it possible to receive voicemail messages as emails in Outlook Online. The email shows a preview of the message using speech to text, all the caller’s details using Lync Online and contains an audio file (.wmv format) of the voicemail to play the message.
The user can then choose to respond by email, phone, instant message or other medium by clicking on the caller’s name. Microsoft has done a great job with Lync Online and embedding it into every aspect of Outlook Online makes moving between modes of communication easy and intuitive.
Gmail’s integration with Google Voice (voice and video conferencing) and Google Talk (instant messaging) is less complete. For example, from within an email you can create a new email or instant message to the sender with one click, but to make a phone call using Google Voice you have to open the contact details first and then choose the phone number.
For further details on Google Talk and Google Voice versus Microsoft Lync Online, see this buyer’s guide.
Google and Microsoft have integrated their cloud applications with their respective mobile operating systems. BoxFreeIT has not evaluated how well these cloud applications work on each platform but it is worth noting that Google Android has risen quickly in the smartphone market in developed economies.
Microsoft has a much smaller market share with smartphones running Windows Phone 7 which, in a brief demonstration, proved to be well integrated with the Office 365 suite.
Mobile computing looks like it will play a dominant role in tomorrow’s business models, and the value of an application might be largely determined by how well it works with a mobile device. In some cases businesses may find Gmail is the better client because it works better with their Android devices than Outlook Online.
Google Gmail and Microsoft Outlook Online are very solid email programs that have sacrificed few features compared to desktop equivalents. Both are well suited to today’s business needs.
The three best reasons for choosing Microsoft Outlook Online are the more attractive interface, integration with social networks and integration with conferencing and messaging application Microsoft Lync Online.
Integration with social networks gives the standard contacts database a shot in the arm through live updates of a contact’s electronic communications and status. Lync Online proves itself to be the best online tool for conferencing and messaging, and Outlook Online is all the better for it.
Gmail’s strongest advantage is its integration with Android devices and to a lesser extent Apple iOS devices. The Gmail mail client has some useful features that take the concept of email a little further but not far enough to offset Outlook Online’s winning advantages.
For a full review of Microsoft Office 365 versus Google Apps, read the buyer’s guide for cloud productivity suites here.