Office 365 Explained

 

There are two titans of the tech industry vying for your business: Microsoft’s Office 365 and Google Apps for Work. These two companies have different philosophies for their productivity suites. Microsoft combines traditional desktop Office applications with browser-based versions of software such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, as well as offering a host of other services to Office 365 subscribers; Google Apps is almost a pure online play, offering the vast majority of its services via the web browser or net-connected apps.

 

Here, we’re going to examine the features and functionality of the apps in both packages, allowing your business to make an informed decision about which best meets your requirements.

Email/Calendar

On most of Microsoft’s Office 365 plans, employees will have the option of using the desktop version of Outlook 2013 and/or a webmail version of Outlook. Outlook offers features Google cannot match. The option to take notes in meetings (using OneNote) and have them permanently associated with the event in your diary is a bonus, making it easy to check agreed action points, for example. Finding free time slots (and even meeting rooms) for meetings with colleagues is easier with Outlook than Google Calendar. Outlook also offers more options for setting “rules” to automatically shuffle incoming messages to certain folders, for example.

The webmail version of Outlook is cleaner, and one that may be less intimidating for some employees. There are no Ribbon menus stuffed with icons – the focus is on reading and replying to messages, and search is snappy, with search terms highlighted in the returned results.

Word processing

The choice between Microsoft Word and Google Docs boils down to the complexity of the documents your staff are required to create.

Google Docs is fine for the basic task of putting words on a page, business letters and rudimentary report writing. There’s now an attractive library of fonts to choose from, the in-line spellcheck works perfectly well (although check language settings aren’t set to the default US English). The option to quickly search photo libraries for royalty free photography and insert them in your documents is brilliant too.

What Google Docs won’t do is create the kind of polished presentation that you would want for company brochures or external marketing materials. The document templates on offer are nowhere near as elegant as Word 2013’s and graphics handling is rudimentary. There’s no option to put frames or drop-shadows on photos, for instance, the drawing tools open in a separate pop-up window rather than on the page, and there’s no quick and easy way to colour alternate rows in tables. It still feels too much like a 1990s word processor.

More worryingly, Google Docs struggles with big, complex documents. Trying to open a graphics-laden, 70-page document with hundreds of tracked changes brought our browser crashing to its knees, time and again. Google Docs used to have a huge advantage when it came to collaborating on documents, but now the online version of Word allows multiple people to edit the same document simultaneously, too. And the ability to chat with colleagues as you work in Docs is a big bonus.

When it comes to dealing with other popular online services, though, Word 2013 wins again. Opening a file shared from Dropbox with Google Docs requires you to import the file into Google Drive, make your changes, and save a new version back down to Dropbox – an awkward faff that has all manner of versioning complications. There are third-party tools that can synchronise Dropbox and Google Drive, but you end up with multiple copies of the same files. Simply opening files from Dropbox, editing in Word and resaving is far less hassle – a key consideration if you have clients that regularly use Dropbox or similar online storage services.

Spreadsheets

Nobody who’s used to battering numbers into a spreadsheet will be in any doubt about Excel’s capabilities. It’s the industry standard for a reason, and is probably the biggest single reason why Microsoft Office remains the default choice for most businesses. Google Sheets remains a long way behind. Again, it’s perfectly capable of the basics, and unless someone sends you an Excel file stuffed to the gills with macros and advanced formatting, Sheets will likely open it and allow you to make sense of the figures. The auto-suggest when entering formulae has been improved in recent years, and the autofill works as expected. Yet, it lacks the real power tools. Pivot table support is still limited, plugins/integration for third-party business tools such as Sage are weaker or non-existent, the charting facilities are much poorer. Your finance department may find a way to work with Google Sheets, but they probably won’t thank you for it.

Presentations

As with the word processing and spreadsheet tools, it’s the sheer sophistication of PowerPoint that gives it the edge over Google Slides. PowerPoint not only offers a vastly wider selection of templates from which to build your slide decks, but has many that pack a visual punch, as opposed to the rather drab, old-fashioned 20 on offer from Google Slides.

Indeed, the whole ranges of visual effects available in PowerPoint are far superior. Videos and photos inserted into slides can easily be put into attractive frames with drop shadows, for instance, while Google Slides lets you do little more than slap an image/video onto a slide and adjust the colours. PowerPoint also has a far greater library of slide layouts, animations and transitions. Of course, many of these are frivolous – naff, even – but it’s far easier to create an impactful presentation in PowerPoint than it is with Google’s tools.

The real clincher is the presentation tools. Attach your laptop to a projector or external screen, and PowerPoint 2013 automatically puts the laptop screen into presenter mode, showing you (but not the audience) presenter notes, forthcoming slides and a running stopwatch. It also provides access to pen tools that let you use your mouse/trackpad as a virtual laser pointer, draw around areas of the slides, or use a virtual highlighter pen to emphasise points. Google, on the other hand, merely gives you an awkward pop-up window displaying any speaker notes and tiny thumbnails of forthcoming slides.

Other apps and services

Office 365 and Google Apps come with a variety of ancillary apps and services that could prove valuable to a business. Many of Microsoft’s subscription plans include access to the company’s iPad apps for Word, PowerPoint and Excel, which are largely excellent – especially PowerPoint, which lets you deliver presentations from your tablet. The smartphone apps are less impressive, and it’s almost unforgivable that Microsoft is yet to deliver touch-friendly versions of the Office apps for Windows tablets.

Google has its own smartphone and tablet apps for Docs, Sheets and Slides too, but these are woefully underpowered in some instances. The Docs app for iPad, for instance, doesn’t even allow you to move or insert images in documents.

Many of Microsoft’s plans provide business-grade instant messaging and videoconferencing via Lync, which is soon to be folded into Skype for Business – a sensible move that will provide a more familiar interface for employees. Google builds instant messaging into Gmail and provides videoconferences via the excellent Google Hangouts, which offer superb speaker detection that automatically puts whoever’s talking at the time in the main video window.

Inter-business social networking is also catered for by both. Microsoft offers businesses access to Yammer, which could effectively be used to replace a company’s intranet. Google, meanwhile, offers Groups for inter-company forum-like discussions and Google+, which combined with instant messaging, all feels like it needs pulling together into one, less confusing, integrated service.

We have to give a special shout out to Microsoft’s OneNote software as well. It's an underrated part of the Office suite that’s excellent for taking notes in meetings, and is one of the few Microsoft productivity apps to have decent touch versions for Windows and other tablets.

Pricing

When it comes to the brass tacks, we have to praise Google for the simplicity of its offering. It has only two tariffs:

- A £3.30 per user, per month deal (all prices excluding VAT) that offers all the apps and 30GB of online storage per user, or

- A £6.60 tariff offering unlimited storage and a selection of advanced features for IT administrators, including message retention policies, admin controls over users’ Google Drives and legal compliance features.

Microsoft has six different tariffs covering businesses and enterprises:

- At the bottom end it has an online-only offering – Office 365 Business Essentials.  It costs £3.10 per user, per month but only gives access to the online versions of Word, PowerPoint etc., not the desktop software.

- For both desktop and online, you need to upgrade to Office 365 Business (£7) or Office 365 Business Premium (£7.80), the latter of which includes a 50GB email inbox, videoconferencing, Yammer and other features.

The two Business tariffs have a limit of 300 users. Larger firms will need to consider the various Enterprise offerings, which range from £5 to £14.70, depending on the feature set required. The most expensive tariff, Enterprise E3, includes everything in the Business Premium deal, plus features such as a corporate video portal, enterprise app management (Group Policy etc.), and legal compliance safeguards.