launch in 2006, Google Apps has been a good way to get email and other services on a custom domain. This is especially true of the free version, which included Gmail, Google Calendar, Google's online word processing and spreadsheet apps and more.
But last December Google discontinued the free edition. This might have not been a big deal for business users, according to Google, since most businesses would quickly hit the limitations of the free edition. But customers considering Google Apps for Business, the premium version, now have reason to look seriously at the alternatives. The most prominent competitor is Microsoft's Office 365.
My own personal domain (larryseltzer.com) has for many years been with Google Apps for Business -- in fact, when I first adopted it the service was called Google Apps Premier. For a number of reasons I recently decided to migrate it to Office 365. In a future story I'll discuss how that went and what lessons I learned -- but for now I'll compare both products and explain why I believe Office 365 has the edge for business users.
Google offers a number of editions for education, ISPs and non-profits but only one edition for business, priced at $5/user per month or $50/user per year.
[ For more on transitioning to Office 365, read Skykick Tackles Microsoft Office 365 Migration Headaches. ]
Microsoft's Office 365 editions are organized differently: Home Premium costs $9.99/family per month, or $99/family per year. There's also an education edition and 8 editions for business offering different service levels for different business sizes.
Even if you're already a Google Apps for Business user, here are a few reasons you might want to consider switching to Office 365:
Is Office 365 actually better than Google Apps? I think so, although the difference is not profound in most cases. Neither online version has all the features and power of the full desktop Excel, but both probably offer enough for most users most of the time.
Google Apps has improved greatly in recent years; the spreadsheet even now includes pivot table support. However, it didn't take me long to find Excel spreadsheets that wouldn't import into Google Apps.
Microsoft's offerings include Sharepoint, Lync, and Exchange in the cloud. All of these services have vast third-party add-on and professional services ecosystems (yes, even Lync). And it doesn't stop at the cloud; one of the best things about Office 365 is that it has...
Direct Support for Microsoft Office Desktop Software
This might seem like an odd and anachronistic feature, but in fact it's a profoundly important one. Cloud versions of office productivity applications, whether from Microsoft or Google, are not as feature-rich as local desktop applications. And there are times when Internet connections are poor or unavailable (for example, on an airplane) and an offline model can be useful.
The more expensive Office 365 versions, from Small Business Premium ($15.00/user per month or $150 annually) on up, include a subscription to the full desktop Office 2013 suite for each user. The less-expensive versions, including the non-premium Small Business, don't include subscriptions to Office, but they work with the copies you may already have. Microsoft says Office 2010 and 2007 work with Office 365, although with some unspecified reduced functionality.
More Flexible Pricing
Most of Microsoft's offerings are more expensive per user than Google's, but its features are more extensive. Microsoft's enterprise offerings include such advanced features as email archiving, ediscovery and site mailboxes.
Except for Gmail, none of Google's apps are widely familiar to users. Microsoft Office is. It's much easier to find training materials and consulting services for Office.
Better Service Level Agreements
Both services have service level agreements (SLAs) that promise a percentage of uptime and credits if the guarantees are not met. For annual payment customers, Google's SLA offers days of service added to the end of the service term ("You aren't satisfied with our service? Here, have some more!").
Microsoft's SLA, on the other hand, actually credits fees back to the customer, and at a higher percentage than Google's. Both companies require the customer requesting credit to provide documentation.
Google's Capricious Behavior
Over the years -- especially in the last year -- Google has changed and dropped services, leaving users in the lurch. The discontinuation of Google Apps Standard (free) Edition is an example. Even grandfathered users of that service, and of the free Gmail service, recently lost the ability to create new Exchange ActiveSync connections to the account. That means if you get a new iPhone, in order to connect it to Gmail you need to use IMAP for email, CalDAV for Calendar and CardDAV for contacts -- and Google's implementations of these standards are inferior. For example, its CalDAV does not support inviting another user to a calendar event.
If Google has made these changes, who's to say that the company won't discontinue or cripple some other service you rely on? Microsoft's record on maintaining old, obsolete, even problematic products and services (think Windows XP) is much better.
There are some areas where both Google and Microsoft fall short. For example, consider cloud storage: Microsoft includes SkyDrive Pro and a whopping 7 GB per user with Office 365. That's a small step up from the 5 GB per user that Google Apps for Business customers get, and that is probably no coincidence. But in both cases, the storage is licensed and allocated per user -- neither Microsoft nor Google takes the obvious next step for an organizational subscription: To license storage as a pool that a company administrator can then allocate to each user. (Perhaps some other cloud storage company does this, but I couldn't find one. Since the technology behind it is quite established, I have to wonder if there's an economic reason for this.)
There are also features where both services are essentially equivalent. But it's hard to think of a case where Office 365 offers less to a business user than Google Apps. That's why I made the switch, and it's why you might want to consider making it too.
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