Now that Microsoft has launched Office 365, it is officially "game on" for online office productivity suites. Microsoft may enjoy a near-monopoly in the desktop office suite market, but online it faces established rivals in the form of Google Apps and Zoho Docs.
We evaluated these three productivity platforms to see how they compare. We examined the office tools themselves, along with their file storage, their consistency of formatting, how they work on mobile devices and in different Web browsers, and how much they cost.
All three platforms provide office basics such as word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation tools. All three also have an email client, online file storage, real-time sharing and collaboration, and some measure of cross-platform availability.
As capable as these three offerings are, though, none of them can truly match the features and flexibility of a locally installed desktop office suite such as Microsoft Office 2010, or the open-source Libre Office. Desktop suites also have the advantage of being able to function without relying on Internet connectivity.
Ultimately, the choice of which suite is best is a subjective determination that involves other factors such as which mobile platform or Web browser you use. Based on our scoring, though, Office 365 is the best overall value, with Google Apps running a close second.
Applications are the primary factor in selecting any office productivity suite--online or not. If the word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, or other tools included in a suite don't meet your needs or expectations, comparing them becomes pointless.
If you're familiar with Office 2007 or Office 2010, you'll probably feel most comfortable working in Office 365. The Web incarnations of the Office apps have stripped-down versions of their respective Ribbons, but Office 365 still has the same look and feel overall, and the core features are present.
Zoho has a comfortable-to-use layout as well. The various Zoho apps look and behave a lot like the pre-Ribbon Microsoft Office, particularly Office 2003. Zoho stands out, though, with unique and innovative features such as a drop-down formatting menu to enclose selected text with assorted quotation marks or brackets, and another that changes selected text to all caps, or simply capitalizes each word.
By comparison, Google Apps' menu bars and features seem austere. People who prefer the old-school text-based menu bar may appreciate the Google Apps interface, but Google Apps is more limited in what it allows you to do, both in formatting and in functionality.
The Office 365 apps offer a more diverse selection of fonts and formatting styles than either Google Apps or Zoho does. More important, those fonts and styles will align with the fonts and styles available in the online apps' desktop counterparts. You can open Office Web Apps inside the appropriate desktop-suite program with the click of a button, and the desktop Microsoft Office suite can save files to the online storage so that you can access them when you're on the go and using the Web apps.
When it comes to spreadsheets, unfortunately, none of the three online packages really deliver the power and flexibility that spreadsheet gurus need. The Web-based tools are sufficient for basic purposes, but lack many advanced features. Office 365 beats the other two, though, in look and feel (especially for users familiar with the Excel 2010 desktop software), as well as in macros and formulas.
Winner: Office 365 Choosing a winner here is difficult, because it is largely a matter of opinion. The unique formatting options in Zoho make that package compelling, but we give the edge to Office 365 for its synchronicity with the look and feel of Microsoft Office.
Files and Storage
Zoho comes with a meager 1GB of online file storage; you can purchase an additional 5GB for $3 per user per month. The space allocated for Zoho email is separate from the data storage and is either 10GB or 15GB, depending on the service plan. Zoho limits you to 10MB file attachments on email, which could become an issue if you're planning to use a document with lots of images, for example.
Google Apps offers the same 1GB of data storage but beats Zoho on email storage, allowing up to 25GB for email, and file attachments as large as 25MB. On top of that, Google recently partnered with Box.net to integrate Google Docs with Box.net's storage. Box.net provides 5GB of data storage for free, so the combination of Google Apps and Box.net delivers a possible 6GB of space.
Of the three online suites, Office 365 stands tall, providing the most storage space by default. The basic Office 365 plan gives you 2GB of data storage space on SharePoint Online; additional space costs $2.50 per gigabyte per user per month. For email, each user has 25GB on the entry-level plan, while higher Office 365 plans have unlimited email storage. Office 365 also allows the biggest file attachments, up to 35MB.
Winner: Office 365 By itself, Office 365 has the edge with its generous file storage. But Google Apps, with its Box.net integration, can provide significantly more data storage capacity.
Sharing and Collaboration
With SharePoint Workspace, you can sync data from Office 365 SharePoint Online for offline access. Neither Google Apps nor Zoho Docs has a native tool, but with those two you could use something like Box.net or Dropbox to sync data for offline access. Of course, without access to the online productivity tools themselves, offline access to the data may not be worth much.
Office 365 provides some real-time collaboration capabilities in Excel and OneNote, but not in Word and PowerPoint. Microsoft recently rolled out a coauthoring function for the Word Web App, but it works only when you're sharing files from the company's Windows Live SkyDrive file storage service, and when you're using the Word Web App; it doesn't work with Office 365.
However, Office 365 handily compensates for the lack of native collaboration within documents by making it easy to set up an online whiteboard session using its Lync Online service. With Lync Online, you can share and collaborate in real time on any item on your desktop. External contacts can join online meetings via the Lync client application, or through a Web-based client.
Google and Zoho each provide better collaboration from within the apps themselves. Both allow real-time editing with multiple users simultaneously. You can share Google Apps files outside of the Google Apps account, but only with users who also have Google accounts. Zoho offers more flexibility by enabling sharing with any email address, and by allowing collaborators to sign in using a Zoho, Facebook, Google, or Yahoo account.
Winner: Google Apps It's a close call between Zoho and Google, but Google wins out since it has a little more polish than the rival platform does. Microsoft, meanwhile, has work to do to catch up with the online-suite veterans.
Next page: Compatibility, Mobile and Browser Options, and Price
Most businesses rely on Microsoft Office as their primary desktop productivity suite. The value of any rival package hinges on how compatible it is with Microsoft Office formatting conventions and file types.
When it comes to document fidelity--maintaining formatting consistency while moving from a Microsoft Office program to a cloud-based equivalent and back again (or in the other direction)--none of the online productivity platforms is perfect.
Google has gone to great lengths to improve fidelity with Microsoft Office, but it hasn't gone far enough. Google Apps can capably open and work with Microsoft Office file formats, but many features--such as tables of contents, footnotes, or inserted images--end up being reformatted in Google terms, and they remain that way when you revert to the native Microsoft Office software.
Zoho Docs is in the same boat as Google Apps in regard to file fidelity, but Zoho has an advantage over Google in supported file types. Zoho can export files in the current XML-based formats used in Office 2007 and 2010, while Google Apps is limited to saving Office files in the outdated .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats.
As you might expect, Office 365 beats out both rivals in this department. Within Office 365, you won't necessarily be able to insert or edit many of the advanced formatting features from the desktop Office programs--such as footnotes, headers, or a table of contents--but you can view them, and at least they won't screw up.
Winner: Office 365 Microsoft's online offering takes this category by a clear margin.
Mobile and Browsers
Looking at performance on mobile devices and Web browsers, it should come as no surprise that Office 365 works best with Windows Phone 7 and Internet Explorer 9, while the Google Apps package excels on Android and in Chrome. Zoho doesn't have the mobile platform or Web browser loyalties of the other two.
With the upcoming "Mango" update, officially named Windows Phone 7.5, the Microsoft mobile platform will have native integration of Office 365 and Windows Live SkyDrive, making it the best integrated mobile platform--assuming that you use Office 365 and SkyDrive.
On the other hand, if you use Google Apps, Android is the mobile platform for you. Google offers a Google Docs app for Android; the app is a little rough around the edges, but for many tasks it works better than using the mobile browser, especially on a smartphone.
Office 365 and Google Apps both work fine for viewing files on an iPhone or iPad, but editing is another story. In Office 365, the file opens in a browser-based viewer; then, if you want to edit the material, you have to use the iOS 'Open In...' function to open the file in an iOS app such as Pages or Documents To Go.
Google Apps allows for basic text editing when in mobile mode. It offers an option to switch to working with the file using the full desktop-browser tools--but when I tried to work in that mode, Google returned an error message.
Zoho is the only one of the three productivity suites that seems to function normally in iOS using the mobile Safari browser. It also offers the most consistent experience from mobile device to mobile device, and from browser to browser.
Winner: Zoho Organizations willing to capitalize on the close relationship that Office 365 has with Windows Phone 7 and Internet Explorer--or the connection that Google Apps has with Android and Chrome--will probably be satisfied. But Zoho takes the prize overall for mobile platforms and Web browsers.
For individual users, or very small companies consisting of just a handful of users, all three online platforms offer free tools that are roughly equivalent, but with limited features. Businesses that need more-robust productivity tools and capabilities, though, have to pay a price.
Zoho Docs has two pricing options: $3 per user per month, and $5 per user per month. The plans are similar, but for $5 per user per month you can add twice as many workspaces, and you get a few additional features, including the ability to share documents with users outside of Zoho without requiring them to set up a Zoho account. In either case, email is a separate service that costs $2.50 or $3.50 per user per month, depending on the Zoho Docs plan.
Google Apps for Business costs $5 per user per month, or $50 per user per year. Office 365 has a variety of plans for different-size companies with assorted needs; the plan most comparable to those of Google Apps and Zoho Docs costs $6 per user per month.
The $3-per-month Zoho plan seems like the least expensive, but it also omits central features--such as email--found in rival plans. Office 365 offers slightly more features and capabilities than the other two, so the additional dollar per user per month seems justified. However, when you start looking at the more advanced--and more expensive--choices from Microsoft, it becomes harder to make a direct comparison.
Winner: Google Apps Of the three, Google Apps is the best value. The annual pricing of $50 per user per year makes it about a third less per user per year than Office 365, yet it delivers equivalent functionality sufficient for most small and medium-size organizations.
For an extra $15 per month, Office 365 users can also get the license to download the desktop Office 2010 Professional suite. At a total of $21 per user per month, this path is significantly more costly than the Web-only options. It adds functionality lacking in the Office Web Apps, though, and it lets users be productive even in the absence of an Internet connection.
That $252 per user per year for Office 365 is a short-term savings. Office 365 will cost more when that amount adds up to $504 over two years, whereas the Office 2010 Professional suite has a street price of $410. The value of moving to the cloud depends on how long you plan to use the Office 2010 suite before upgrading, and how much value you will get from having the added functionality of the desktop suite.