Is Google Apps right for your business?
For a search advertising company, Google has done a pretty good job of reinventing the office productivity suite for the internet generation.
Google Apps is still built on email and the familiar trio of word processor, spreadsheet and presentation, but Google has made it dead simple to share documents, images, sites and newsgroups.
However, for anyone looking for an internet-based, exact replica of Microsoft Office, Google Apps is not going to satisfy. Microsoft Office 365 doesn’t quite offer this either but it is much closer to that goal and looks nearly identical.
Will Google Apps work for your business? It depends on what you want to use it for and how open you are to change. If you prefer not to mix with the formula, Office 365 might be better.
Below are eight of the best reasons to buy Google Apps, and eight reasons to look elsewhere.
1. Simple plan
Google Apps comes with just one plan. For US$50 per year a user gets access to every feature in every application in Google Apps. This makes it very easy to budget how much your business will spend on IT. Compare this to Microsoft’s 7 plans each with its own set of restrictions. Microsoft’s approach creates a management headache for business owners who must decide what sort of access each employee needs and then give them a plan to match.
Google Apps costs US$5 per user per month or US$4.17 if you pay annually. Microsoft’s small business plan costs $7.90 per user per month and has limited features compared to the enterprise plans. An enterprise plan for Office 365 with the ability to edit documents online costs $25.10 per user per month. And don’t forget that you need to buy desktop versions of Office for Office 365, although these are bundled as part of the two most expensive plans (starting at $40.10 per user per month). Microsoft says you get a lot more for the money with Office 365, but if all you want is a basic productivity suite then Google Apps is much cheaper.
3. Desktop independent
Google built Google Apps with the idea that a user could do everything from within their internet browser. The advantage of this approach is that you don’t have to worry which computer or device you are using; as long as it has a browser you should have access to all your files and be able to edit and create documents as easily as if you were on your own machine.
Microsoft’s cloud suite, Office 365, is only usable for minor edits rather than creating documents, for which the desktop version of Microsoft Office is required in most cases. If the computer you are using doesn’t have Microsoft Office then your options are much more limited.
4. No security risk, time and expense in patching software
In Google’s vision for office computing, all applications are loaded through the browser; there is no information stored on the computer or device itself. This frees a business from the need to upgrade, patch and maintain software – an ongoing expense and distraction that is now handled by cloud vendors. It also removes the security risk presented by unpatched or out-of-date applications. As mentioned above, Microsoft still intends for businesses to use desktop software in conjunction with the cloud.
5. No more software migrations
This follows on from the point above. Cloud vendors carry out software upgrades within their data centres and upgrade all customers at the same time. No business needs to worry about migrating from one version to another or about being left behind if they’re not on the latest. And because everyone is on the same version there are no compatibility issues.
Desktop software aside, Microsoft still maintains versions of its software in the cloud. There is no easy upgrade between small business and enterprise versions of Office 365. A data migration project needs to be carried out by an IT services organisation to make the move.
6. Best-in-class document collaboration
Google Apps was designed to run on the internet and be used by multiple people at the same time. Instead of sending around versions of a spreadsheet, tracking comments and changes, a Google Apps user creates a spreadsheet and gives other users access to view and edit simultaneously. No more back and forth.
The same sharing ability is built into any file, whether an image, document, presentation, and can be shared with an essentially unlimited number of individuals, groups or the open internet.
Microsoft documents need to be sent to SharePoint Online to be made shareable, and version control is still the preferred method of sharing a document.
7. Mobile computing
One of the killer features of cloud computing is the ability to access it from anywhere, at any time. To do that you ideally need a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet. Google has quickly built a strong base of smartphones and tablets running its Android operating system on which Google Apps naturally runs very well.
Google Apps also runs on iPhones and iPads – albeit a little less effectively – and on WebOS tablets. All that is required is a mobile browser.
Office 365 really works best with smartphones running Microsoft Phone 7, which has a very small user base by comparison. Office 365’s web apps rely on Microsoft-specific software (Silverlight) which isn’t compatible with iPhones and iPads.
8. “Good enough” feature set
Google says that its Google Apps suite has 80 percent of the features of the desktop version of Microsoft Office and that most businesses would never need the extra 20 percent. For basic document, spreadsheet and presentations, Google Apps does enough to cover most needs.
Next page: The dealbreakers
1. Second-rate communications
Phone and video conferencing in Google Apps is rudimentary. The interface is unappealing and has limited features compared to Office 365’s powerful Lync Online. Lync can run multi-user phone and video conferences, share desktop and applications with other users and even replace a PBX phone system.
Microsoft has also bought Skype and will no doubt integrate it with Lync which will instantly create a massive, Microsoft-only communications network overnight.
2. Poor Microsoft compatibility with later file types
Microsoft’s latest Word (.docx), Excel (.xlsx) and PowerPoint (.pptx) file formats are difficult for other programs to display. Google Apps struggles too, either showing fonts incorrectly or dropping information totally.
This can have serious consequences if a spreadsheet sent to a Google Apps user fails to show a figure or a graph.
Note: Files in any Microsoft format can be opened by using Google Cloud Connect, a tool which lets a Google Apps user use Microsoft Office to open, edit and create documents and save them to Google Apps. However, this solution will only work on PCs with Office 2003, 2007 and 2010 and Google Cloud Connect must be downloaded and installed first.
3. Limited features for document creation
The word processor, spreadsheet and presentation in Google Apps are better featured than their web-only counterparts in Office 365 but still fall quite short of Microsoft Office on the desktop. Word can create professional reports and newsletters; Google Docs has just 15 fonts. Companies can run their entire finance department in stacks of Excel spreadsheets; Google Spreadsheet only just got pivot tables. PowerPoint gets more animations each year; Google Presentation is for static, simple slides only.
Note: As mentioned above, Google Apps users can use Google Cloud Connect to open, edit and create documents in Microsoft Office on a PC and save them to Google Apps. However, this solution will only work on PCs with Office 2003, 2007 and 2010 and Google Cloud Connect must be downloaded and installed first.
4. Can’t run Microsoft macros
No Microsoft macros in Google Apps can definitely be a show-stopper for those businesses which have invested a lot of time and effort in automating their business processes. Google Apps has a replacement called Google Script but it can’t import macros.
A business must weigh up the cost of losing or recreating macros if it migrates away from Microsoft.
Google has a shaky reputation for support for small and medium businesses. Without a Google reseller to hold your hand, you’re pretty much left to search message boards and fire off emails in the hope of a reply.
On resellers: Google has a very small representation in Australia compared to the vast numbers of Microsoft resellers and it isn’t as easy to find someone for advice and help.
Google Apps has quite a different interface, especially Gmail, which can be conceptually challenging for older staff. Leaving the safety of the ubiquitous Microsoft environment has a cost which is sometimes difficult to measure. Google Apps resellers say that the most important aspect of migrating from Microsoft to Google Apps is making sure staff understand how to use the new suite, so don’t underestimate this hurdle.
7. Mac incompatibility
Google Apps works better with Macs than Office 365 does. However, Google still has a lot of work to do. It is still very cumbersome to edit documents in Google Apps on the iPad, particularly spreadsheets which must be edited and saved one line at time.
8. Less templates
Google Apps’ intranet and extranet application, Sites, comes with some basic templates. Microsoft’s SharePoint Online has a far richer library of templates thanks to a strong community of software developers who sell their own templates for specific industries or make custom ones on demand. Templates make it much easier for a business to get started quickly or improve the look, feel and efficiency of a business’ website.
For more advice on choosing between Office 365 and Google Apps, see our buyer’s advice page for productivity suites.