Office 365 vs Google Apps: which is better? This is a question that many businesses, particularly startups, have trouble answering.
In this post I’m going to try to help you decide which is best for your business, by putting the two product suites head to head in a detailed comparison review.
Read on to see how Google Apps and Office 365 fare against each other in the key areas of pricing, features and ease-of use. We’ll explore all the pros and cons of each product in depth and explain why, and when, you might want to use one over the other. Let's start by taking a look at what these products actually let you do.
What do Office 365 and Google Apps do?
Office 365 and Google Apps for Work are a suite of productivity tools that let you perform common business tasks 'in the cloud'. Both suites of products allow you to create documents, spreadsheets and presentations and collaborate with team members whilst doing so; they also provide video conferencing functionality and cloud storage.
Pricing - how do Google Apps and Office 365 compare?
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Google Apps pricing
Choosing a Google Apps plan is relatively straightforward, as there are only two plans available:
- Google Apps for Work: $5 per user per month ($50 per user per year if paid annually)
- Google Apps Unlimited: $10 per user per month ($120 per user per year if paid annually)
With Google Apps for Work, you get
- Business email addresses (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Video and voice calls
- Online calendars
- 30 GB of online storage for file syncing and sharing
- Online text documents, spreadsheets and slides
- Project sites (a way to build simple websites or intranet)
- Security and admin controls
- 24/7 phone and email support.
On the Unlimited plan, in addition to the above you get
- Unlimited file storage (or 1 TB if your organisation has less than 5 Google Apps users)
- Advanced admin controls for Drive
- Audit and reporting insights for Drive content and sharing
- Google Vault for eDiscovery covering emails, chats, docs and files
- Advanced search
- More options when it comes to file exports
- Email archives
- Set message-retention policies
- Litigation holds on inboxes
For many users, the most significant difference between these two plans will involve file storage. With Google Apps for Work, users are restricted to 30GB of file storage; but - so long as there are 5 or more Google Apps users in your organisation - there are no limits on the Google Apps Unlimited plan. If you have less than 5 users, file storage is restricted to 1TB per Google Apps account.
(It’s important to note that Google Docs, Sheets, Slides and Drawings - i.e. documents created using Google’s set of apps rather than third party applications - don’t count toward this limit. Neither do files shared with you by other Google Drive users.)
‘Power users’ and big organisations are also likely to find the Google Vault feature handy - this lets you archive all communications in your organisation according to rules you define. This may be useful if for legal reasons you need to store an extensive communications history.
Microsoft Office 365 pricing
The pricing options for Office 365 are more complicated, because there are home, business, enterprise and education versions available. For the purposes of this review however, I’m going to focus on the 'Business' and 'Enterprise' plans, which are:
- Business Essentials - $6 per user per month
- Business - $10 per user per month
- Business Premium - $15 per user per month
- Enterprise E1 - $8 per user per month (requires annual commitment)
- Enterprise Pro Plus - $12 per user per month (requires annual commitment)
- Enterprise E3 - $20 per user per month (requires annual commitment)
- Enterprise E5 - $35 per user per month (requires annual commitment).
As you might expect, there are a lot of different options to get your head around with the above 7 plans, but a few important things to note are as follows:
- The ‘Business’ plans let you pay on a rolling per-month basis; the ‘Enterprise’ ones do not - you have to pay upfront for a year. This means that if your workforce tends to shrink or grow throughout the year, the ‘Business’ plans might be more suitable for your organisation.
- The ‘Business’ plans all limit the maximum number of users to 300.
- All plans provide you with with the desktop versions of the Microsoft Office product suite (Word, Excel, Powerpoint etc.) except for the ‘Business Essentials’ and ‘Enterprise E1’ plans, which only provide the online ones. So if a key motivation behind choosing Office 365 is to avail of the desktop apps as well as the cloud features, make sure you avoid those particular plans.
- Not all of the Office 365 plans provide users with an email account - if you want to use Office 365 as your email service provider, you’ll need to steer clear of the ‘Business 365’ and the ‘Enterprise Pro Plus’ plans.
- Similarly, the ‘Business 365’ and ‘Enterprise Pro Plus’ plans don’t feature calendar functionality.
- The three ‘Business’ plans listed above come in a bit cheaper if you commit to paying upfront for a year.
The most directly comparable Google Apps and Office 365 plans are arguably
- the ‘Google Apps for Work’ ($5 per user per month) and Office 365 ‘Business Essentials’ ($6 per user per month) plans
- the ‘Google Apps Unlimited’ ($10 per user per month) and Office 365 ‘Enterprise E3’ ($20 per user per month) plans.
In essence there is a $1 per user per month saving to be made at the lower end of the pricing bands by plumping for Google’s Apps for Work’ over Microsoft’s ‘‘Business Essentials’; but at the more ‘enterprise’ level, the Office 365 ‘Enterprise E1’ plan comes in at $10 higher per month than ‘Google Apps Unlimited’ plan (and you'll have to pay upfront for the year for the Microsoft product too).
This doesn’t really tell the full story however, because there are so many variables and potential tradeoffs at play here. Although the above plans are broadly comparable, there are still big differences in important areas such as email storage, file storage and archiving to consider; so coming up with an answer to the ‘which is cheaper, Google Apps or Office 365’ question is probably best answered by taking a more in-depth look at the features of each product and seeing how well they fulfil your business needs.
Office 365 vs Google Apps: the features
If we’re talking entry-level plans, then Office 365 is a clear winner here: you get 1TB of storage with the ‘Business Essentials’ plan compared to Google’s rather paltry 30GB on the ‘Apps for Work’ plan (to add insult to injury, Google also counts emails as taking up space in this 30GB limit).
However, if you move up a notch to the Google Apps ‘Unlimited’ plan, Google Apps beats all the Microsoft plans hands down in the storage department. As the plan name suggests, you get unlimited storage, which is extremely useful to any business that works with large multimedia files. Although Microsoft Office 365’s 1TB limit (which applies on all its plans) sounds very generous, you’d be surprised how quickly you can burn through 1TB of storage if storing video (or even audio). If cloud storage is your primary concern, then it’s probably a win here for Google Apps, so long as you are prepared to be on the more expensive $10 per user per month plan.
One important thing to note - and this seems to be a fairly recent development - is that Google Apps Unlimited only provides you with unlimited file storage if you buy more than 5 user accounts. Otherwise you're restricted to 1TB. This is a bit of a shame really, as it renders Google's USP rather less unique for any companies with less than 5 employees.
Both Office 365 and Google Apps give you the option to buy more storage on a per user basis. As far as I can make out from the information provided by Microsoft - its website isn’t madly clear on this - every 1 GB extra on Office 365 costs $0.20 per user.
With Google Apps, you'll generally only need to worry about storage limits if you’re using the basic ‘Apps for Work Plan’ or are on a Google Unlimited plan and, as discussed above, have less then 5 users in your organisation. There are several tiers of additional data storage purchase options which start at 4GB ($4 extra per user per month) and go up to 16TB per user ($1430 per user per month!). Depending on how much storage you need for particular users, you may find it works out cheaper to simply upgrade all your Google Apps users to the ‘Unlimited’ plan than buying a few users additional storage.
It’s a similar story with email. The entry level $6 per month Office 365 plan is considerably more generous when it comes to email storage - a dedicated 50GB inbox is available on top of the 1TB file storage provided; and by comparison, the $5 per user per month ‘Google Apps for Work’ plan caps total storage at 30GB, emails and files included.
However, if you’re on the $10 Google Unlimited plan (and have 5+ users in your team) there isn’t a cap on your inbox size; by contrast, to get unlimited email storage with Office 365, you need to be on the $20 per user per month ‘Enterprise E3’ plan, a cost which is double that of the Google Apps equivalent plan.
In terms of the email apps that are available to you, Gmail is robust, fast and very easy to find messages with, thanks to its powerful search functionality (you’d expect that side of things to be good, given that it’s Google we’re talking about here). Also, given its popularity there are a huge range of third-party apps available for it which add all manner of useful functionality to proceedings.
However - and incredibly frustratingly - Gmail doesn’t allow you to sort or group mail, something most users will routinely require from an email client. As such you may find yourself wanting to use Gmail in conjunction with another email program - for example the excellent (and free) Thunderbird, or, whisper it, Outlook.
And speaking of which, getting your hands on Outlook is a key attraction of Office 365. On most Office 365 plans you get access to two versions of Outlook: an online version, which is okay, but - mail sorting functionality aside - Gmail probably betters in most respects; and an offline version, which is feature rich and provides a lot of flexibility when it comes to how you sort, group, label and generally manage your email.
Here is where things get pretty interesting, and where many users will be tempted to go for Office 365 over Google Apps. With most of the Office 365 plans you get all the desktop versions of their products as well as the cloud-based ones. In essence, you can install the full versions of Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook etc. on your desktop machine and work offline on these applications. Despite this being the age of cloud computing, a multitude of businesses still send each other files created offline using these applications, so there is a strong argument for having desktop versions of all the above available, so that your team can work easily with these file formats.
Another argument in favour of having the MS applications installed in your organisation boils down to functionality. It’s fair to say that the Google apps are definitely more basic in terms of what they can do than their Microsoft desktop app equivalents. If you’re looking to do some advanced number crunching, Excel will beat Google Sheets; if you want to add some ‘Smart Art’ in a document, you’ll need to be working in Microsoft Word rather than Google Docs; and if you need slick slide animations in a presentation, Powerpoint will do a much better job than Google Slides.
However, that shouldn’t deter you entirely from using Google Apps, because it is possible to open Microsoft Office documents using them, and indeed save files created with Google Apps to Microsoft Office format. The problem with working this way is that you can’t always preserve the exact formatting of Office files when you edit and save them in Google Apps. How much of a big deal this is for you will depend on the nature of your business: if you are expected by clients to routinely provide them with beautifully formatted MS Office files then you’re not always going to be able to do that with Google Apps. But if you just need to occasionally open an MS Office file, or send something basic over to a client in MS Office format, you should be able to make do with Google’s suite of products.
The other thing to remember about the Microsoft Office desktop applications is that as nice as they are, and as familiar with them as your team may be, they have to be installed locally. This means that that somebody in your organisation will need to take care of this aspect of things - and this person (or persons) should really know what they’re doing. In essence, using the Microsoft desktop apps brings with it some IT costs (at the very least, there’s a time implication - your team will need to devote some hours to installing and periodically updating the applications).
There’s also something else you might want to consider about giving your team access to the desktop apps: habit or human nature. Most people like to work with tools they're familiar with, and, given the long history of Microsoft Office products, your team is likely to plump for the locally installed versions of the Office 365 products over the cloud-based, collaborative tools it also provides. This will probably encourage 'local' or offline working rather than the more collaborative cloud approach (and working offline can throw up some security headaches too).
Conversely, if you create a working environment where your organisation only uses browser-based applications that save documents to the cloud, then your data is arguably more secure (so long as you have backup procedures in place) and your team are more likely to make fuller use of the collaboration features that tools like Office 365 and Google Apps provide.
Finally on the subject of apps, don’t forget that there is nothing to stop you from using both Google Apps and MS Office applications in conjunction with each other. If you are tempted by the unlimited cloud storage provided by Google Apps, but want to save Word documents in it, you can buy the offline versions of the Microsoft applications that you use regularly, and save files created in them to your Google Drive via Google Desktop Sync (more on that anon).
A huge advantage of working in the cloud is the collaboration possibilities it opens up. Instead of faffing about with markup and ‘tracking changes’, people who want to work on the same file can simply open up a document in a browser and see, in real time, the edits that everybody looking at the file is making.
Both Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365 make this sort of online collaboration straightforward using their online apps. Additionally, you can now use Microsoft’s desktop apps to work on documents in real time with other team members - but some users, including the Wall Street Journal’s Personal Tech columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler, have found that to be a bit of a clunky experience, as the video below demonstrates:
In the interest of balance however, it's worth sharing another video with you too, which takes a look at the collaboration features of the online, browser-based versions of the Office 365 apps:
I would on balance say that the Google Apps collaboration functionality is a bit more easy to get your head around than Office 365’s, possibly because the product is 1) less feature packed and 2) was conceived with collaboration as a key feature (Office 365, by contrast, has evolved from being a suite of desktop applications into a solution that features collaborative tools). All in all though, both product suites allow you to collaborate with co-workers effectively.
See below for a video highlighting some collaboration options in Google Docs.
Both Google Apps and Office 365 provide video conferencing functionality: Hangouts and Skype respectively. In my experience I’ve found Hangouts to work a bit better than Skype - it seems to drop calls less frequently and crash less. But I have also found that more people are on Skype and are more comfortable with using it. This means, predictably, that I’ve ended up using both tools for making calls.
However, Office 365 is a much better bet when it comes to participant limits on video calls. The maximum number of people that can participate in a video call in Google Apps is 25; on Skype it’s 250. And if you’re looking for serious voice calling functionality in general- both in terms of conference calling or general telephony services, Office 365 offers far more options, but note that you will have to be on one of the most expensive plans to avail of these features.
That syncing feeling
Both Office 365 and Google Apps provide desktop apps for syncing local data with the cloud and vice versa - OneDrive and Google Drive Sync respectively. These apps allow you to save a file in the cloud which then appears on your local drive, or vice versa. This is handy for when you want to work on documents offline, or want to back up or upload local files to your cloud storage (the only downside of this is that it makes your data less secure - if your laptop gets stolen for example, so does your data).
I marginally prefer Office 365’s desktop sync option, because it makes it easy to share a file with others directly from the desktop - you just right click on the file and you see an option to share it with others.
As you'd expect, there are mobile apps (iOS and Android) available for both Google Apps for Work and Office 365, which allow you to access and edit your files on the go. My experience with both has been fairly positive; it's certainly possible to access the information quickly on both sets of apps easily, but I'm not sure how inclined I'd be to do a lot of editing of spreadsheets, for example, on a mobile device (particularly a phone).
I suspect that most users will end up using the mail applications the most - and these are the apps I've had the most experience with. I don't particularly like the Gmail mobile app, as it doesn't let you turn off the horrendous conversation view. On the flip side it is brilliant when it comes to searching for old messages (as you'd expect a company specialising in search engine functionality).
The mobile version of Outlook is a bit disappointing too - no sorting or grouping of mail is possible. To be honest, whether I was using Google Apps or Office, I'd probably be inclined to ignore both their offerings when it comes to mobile email and use my favourite email client, Inkymail, instead.
The good thing about both sets of mobile apps is that they make editing your work on-the-go in areas where you don't have Internet access very straightforward - so long as you save the files you want to work onto your mobile device before you go offline (see the section below on working offline for more details).
Advanced features in Office 365 and Google Apps
Features common to both products' more enterprise-grade plans are:
- Intranet building functionality
- E-discovery tools
- Advanced reporting
- Email archiving
- Legal holds on inboxes
Microsoft offer some additional advanced functionality on their most expensive plans, including
- Advanced virus protection
- Rights management
- Cloud based phone call hosting services
It’s probably fair to say that you can avail of advanced functionality considerably cheaper on Google Apps - for example, you get intranet building functionality with the $5 per month Google Apps for Work option; e-Discovery tools, advanced reporting, email archiving and legal holds on inboxes all come as standard on the $10 per month 'Google Apps Unlimited option'. But if you are hoping to avail of most of the functionality listed above using Office 365, you’ll have to bear in mind that it is only available on the most expensive plans - the $20 per month E3 plan or the $35 per month E5 plan.
24/7 phone support in English is offered for users of both Google Apps and Office 365; hours for support in other languages vary depending on country. Email support is also offered for both products; Google also provide support via live chat. Forums are also available for both products.
I only have personal experience of Google support for Google Apps, and not Microsoft Office 365. I was satisfied with how Google handled and resolved my issue.
Interface and ease of use
So which is easier to use, Google Apps or Microsoft Office 365? Which product comes with the steeper learning curve? As with much else in this comparison, the fairest answer (unfortunately!) is probably ‘it depends.’
Because of the ubiquity of Microsoft Office apps, there is a case to be made that people using Office 365 are likely to already be familiar with how Microsoft software works, and be in a better position to hit the ground running with them.
You could also argue however that the simpler productivity tools bundled with Google Apps generate a less steep learning curve for your users.
The online version of MS Word lets you work in a similar fashion, it has to be said - but it just feels a bit more ‘fussy’ and in my experience takes a bit longer to load. But it will let you edit MS Office documents more easily and reproduce or save them without formatting issues.
Ultimately I think both products are fairly straightforward to use - if editing MS Office files is going to be a big part of your job, then Office 365 will feel a lot more familiar and present less of a learning curve; if collaboration is more the concern, then Google Apps is arguably the better bet.
Working offline with Google Apps and Office 365
Given that Google Apps is designed to run in a browser, a key question many potential Google Apps users typically have is "will I be able to work offline?" The answer is: yes. On a desktop computer, you'll need to do two things: 1) ensure that you've installed Google's Chrome browser and 2) switch on file syncing. This will allow you to access and edit Google documents, sheets and slides offline; any changes you make to them will be synced to the cloud when you reconnect to the Internet.
With regard to Gmail, there is an offline app available for it, which also requires Chrome to run - and again you'll need to ensure you download all your mail before going offline. The Gmail offline app is very similar to the mobile version of Gmail - and it's similarly annoying, because you can't switch the conversation view off.
You can also work offline using Google's mobile apps - however, you have to let Google Apps know that you want a particular file to be available offline first (by checking an option that downloads it to your mobile device).
With Office 365, the best way to work offline on a desktop computer is using the standard desktop applications in conjunction with the desktop version of OneDrive. As with Google Apps, ensure you've synced everything to your desktop before going offline - you can then work on any file in Word, Excel etc. and when you reconnect to the Internet any changes you have made will be synced.
Office 365's mobile apps also let you work offline, but as with Google's mobile apps, you'll need to download individual files to your mobile device first to access them on the go.
Extending the functionality of Google Apps and Office 365
If you are not happy with the functionality provided by Google Apps and Office 365, there are two ways you can extend the functionality of both suites of products.
The first, and simplest, is by installing an 'add on' to the products. Both Microsoft and Google have online stores that provide a wide range of apps to beef up their productivity tools - the 'Office Store' and 'Apps Marketplace' respectively. There are more apps available for Microsoft Office than Google Apps: 1850+ Microsoft apps to Google's 750+ apps. Both free and paid-for apps are available for both systems.
The other way to beef up the functionality of both products is to code something yourself. If you have the know-how, you can use the Microsoft or Google APIs (application program interfaces) to add a bespoke piece of functionality to your chosen set of productivity tools. You can read more about the Google Apps for Work API on the Google Developers site; the relevant information about the Microsoft Office API can be found here.
The good news as far as Google Apps goes is that a one-month free trial is available. With Office 365 it's a case of committing to a particular plan from the outset. That said, you can try out all the online Office apps for free - you just won't get email accounts or any of the advanced functionality that comes with the paid-for Office 365 plans.
Google Apps vs Office 365: the conclusions
After reading the above Google Apps vs Office 365 comparison, I hope you have a clearer idea of why or when you might pick one of these products over the other.
For me, I would probably focus on five areas in making the final decision:
- Your file storage requirements
- The need your organisation may have to edit MS Office documents
- The nature of your working environment
- IT implications
If having a serious quantity of cloud storage available with is the overriding concern, then the Google Apps Unlimited plan is hard to argue with. So long as you intend to buy 5 or more Google Apps accounts, for $10 per user per month, you get unlimited file storage and unlimited email storage - all the MS Office 365 plans, even the most expensive ones, cap the standard storage figure at 1TB.
If you work in an organisation that absolutely has to work with MS Office files regularly - and particularly if you need to use the advanced functionality that MS Office applications provide - then the natural choice is going to be Office 365 (just make sure that you select a plan that includes the desktop applications: not all do).
The environment that you are hoping to deploy Google Apps and Office 365 in should also be factored into your decision. If your organisation uses a wide mix of devices and operating systems, then you could potentially make life easier for your users by plumping for Google Apps, which is designed to run online (ideally in a web browser but apps are available for all the major OS devices). With Google Apps, it simply won’t matter whether your team members use Mac OS, Windows, Linux, Chrome OS...everything will look, feel and function the same. But if your organisation is entirely MS Windows-based, there's a lot to be said for Microsoft Office 365 - a plan which involves the desktop apps will slot neatly into such an environment.
IT implications: whilst it’s always a good idea to have some IT resource available, the resource and IT cost implication for deploying, maintaining and supporting Google Apps will in my view be lower than for Office 365, particularly if the desktop apps are involved.
And finally, scalability: the more affordable Office 365 plans (the 'Business' ones) currently cap the numbers of users at 300 - no such limit applies to Google Apps plans.
It’s a tough decision! But hopefully this review has helped resolve the Office 365 vs Google Apps debate just a little bit for you. I’ll leave you with a summary of some reasons which you might prioritise one solution over the other. And if you have any thoughts on the Office 365 vs Google Apps debate, please do make sure you share them in the comments section below!
Reasons to pick Google Apps over Office 365
- File storage: at $10 per user per month, the Google Unlimited Plan is better value data-wise than most of the Microsoft plans, giving you an unlimited amount of cloud storage to play with (as long as you are buying 5+ Google Apps accounts).
- It’s very scalable - there are no limits on the number of users regardless of what plan you’re on (the cheaper Office ‘Business’ plans cap the number of your users at 300).
- Google Apps was built as collaboration-focused solution, and as such its collaboration features are arguably stronger.
- eDiscovery, site building tools, email archiving and legal holds on inboxes (amongst other advanced features) are available for a much lower cost with Google Apps.
- The Google Apps interface is clean and the apps load fast (certainly faster than Microsoft Office desktop equivalents, and in my experience the Office online apps too).
- It’s a good solution for businesses where multiple devices and operating systems are used.
- There are a large number of third party web applications which integrate neatly with Google Apps and enhance its functionality.
- The fact that everything is cloud-based may encourage users to use the cloud more, with all the collaboration-related benefits this brings.
Reasons to pick Office 365 over Google Apps
- Most Office 365 plans come with desktop versions of the Microsoft Office applications, making the product a much better fit for any organisation with clients that expect it be able to send, receive and edit MS Office files without difficulty.
- The file storage and email storage quotas on the Office 365 entry level plan are much more generous than those provided by the Google Apps entry level plan.
- Outlook provides you with an easy means to sort and group mail - Gmail doesn’t (unless you use a client like Outlook or Thunderbird to access it).
- You can have far more participants on a Skype call than a Hangout.
- More advanced phone call management options are available with Office 365.
- It’s easier to share files on desktop computers using the sync app for Microsoft’s OneDrive than the Google Drive equivalent.
- More advanced functionality regarding virus protection and rights management is available with MS Office 365 (for a price, though).
- Office 365 may provide a natural fit for businesses that are exclusively Windows-based.
- More apps are available to extend the functionality of Office 365.
Alternatives to Office 365 and Google Apps
The main alternatives to Office 365 and Google Apps are probably Apple's iWork suite of products and Open Office.
iWork is a nice, 'clean' set of productivity tools; as with Google Apps, you'll encounter a more minimalistic interface than in MS Office. As with both Office and Google Apps, you can use iWorks in a browser on any device and collaborate in real time with other users; desktop apps (Pages, Numbers and Keynote) are also available, but these work with Apple products only. In terms of costs, the browser edition of iWorks is free, but you will need to potentially pay for iCloud storage. The desktop apps cost $10 to $20 each.
Open Office is a well-known open-source office software suite for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics and databases. The good news is that it's completely free - the less good news is that there isn't an official 'cloud' version of the software. If you are particularly keen on using Open Office though, some cloud functionality will be available to you using Rollapp, an 'online application virtualization platform', which - in theory at least - allows you to run any application on any device in a web browser.
Got any thoughts on Google Apps, MS Office 365 or any of the alternatives? Do feel free to leave a comment below!
We now offer Google Apps migration and installation services, which will get your business set up on Google Apps quickly and with a minimum of fuss.
Find out more about our Google Apps Migration services here.