The world of software productivity and collaboration has, over the past five years, been heading distinctly cloud-wards. Over the past six years quite a bit of my time has been involved in projects involving both Google Apps and Office 365, and here are a few reflections on that experience and the current state of play of the two products.

For a bit more context, I started using Microsoft Office back in around 1994 when the company I then worked for, KPMG, shifted from a raggle-taggle mix of WordPerfect 5.1, Excel 3 and Harvard Graphics (remember that? – if you’re under 40 then almost certainly not) to the then newly integrated-ish Office Suite version 4. Since then I have worked with Mac versions of the suite as well as most of the Windows versions up to the current version 2013 and it’s cloud-based Office365 implementation. I have three clients using various parts of the O365 suite where I am currently using the service.

I started using Google Apps in 2009 when I moved the company (and it’s roughly 1,000 users) I then worked for over to the Cloud platform. I’ve been using the platform in clients since, and also have Google Apps as my own primary tools for my business.

One – Collaboration, productivity and software categories

In the world of enterprise software, collaboration has come to mean a category of software services that amount to email, calendar, file sharing, instant messaging, voice, video and possibly enterprise social networking. Productivity, on the other hand, has come to mean the Office suite trinity of word processing, spreadsheets and presentation slides.

Whether collaboration software makes organisations any more collaborative or productivity software makes individuals or groups any more productive is a moot point. As we shall see, there are plenty of ways in which the two cloud platforms muddle these categories that offers new ways to work and opportunities for improvement. Undoubtedly, though, they won’t happen without concerted effort by people to change working patterns, and that’s not something that happens by default when you move to a new platform.

Two – Apps, browsers and devices

The single most significant change that Google Apps has made to both products is to raise the profile of the internet browser as a credible platform in which productivity and collaboration tools can be delivered in entirety. Fully-fledged email has been in browser form for quite some time, but the Docs/Slides/Sheets triptych have changed expectations of what can be done within Chrome, Firefox or the new Edge browsers.

The advantage of browser-based tools is the shift from file-based models of data to web-based object models. That’s quite an esoteric techie point, and quite difficult to articulate to people who have better things to do with their lives, but put simply the opportunity for multiple people to work on the same version of a document at the same time trumps making multiple copies (either through emailing or through document management check-in/check-out) every time.

Office 365 has caught up to a great extent with most of this, but the legacy of being a set of products designed as applications installed on PCs or Macs working on files and then sharing them means that the multiple authorship still feels more coherent on the Google platform (especially because I imagine use of Word, Excel and Powerpoint Online is still a minority activity). The big Google advantage that was in this space, though, has gone. It’s clear that in the last year or so Microsoft are now developing Office for its web incarnation first.

However, at the same time as the rising ascendency of the browser as a coherent rich application environment, we’ve also see the rise of the smartphone as a primary computing device. Both Office and Apps have rich mobile apps spanning across iOS, Android (and Windows Phone of course for Office). Whilst the functionality of both mobile suites continues to grow, what I increasingly feel is that this just further highlights an underlying issue that is that spreadsheets, word processing documents and presentation slides just don’t really work on a 5″ screen. Either to consume or particularly to edit.

We are seeing alternative forms of document arise as a result: Microsoft OneNote has been around for a while, but with touch screen interfaces starts to come into its own; their experiments with Sway also look interesting; Google Keep, whilst expanding, is still a bit of a toy application. Ultimately, though, the spanning of collaborative activity across device types and team members is something that is possibly better suited to enterprise social networks. To that end, whilst Yammer is part of the Office 365 suite it still feels quite disconnected from the greater parts, and Google Plus is still pottering along in its perpetual identity crisis.

Overall, though, this is a great case of where the effort required for many people to change the tools they use to work together is trumped by the expediency of continuing to bash out a Powerpoint and email it (especially if you are trying to work across many organisations). The changes are happening, but it’s still nascent in most big organisations.

Three – Microsoft going Google/Google going Microsoft

As already mentioned, a lot of Microsoft’s development over the past few years with Office has been to match features of group working in a web environment that have been hard-wired into the Google offer since the various parts of the Apps suite were cobbled together. It mostly works, but there are niggles and gaps (and my base environment of using a Chromebook for my day-to-day work certainly identifies all of the times when the web-based versions of Office require you to revert to the full-blooded installed apps.

Conversely, much of Google’s development has been to make Google Apps more like Microsoft Office (in an attempt, presumably, to reduce the shock factor for people switching). Some of this is feature-matching within the various tools, but some of it has left a very confusing environment. A couple of examples:

When Google Drive was called Google Docs there originally weren’t such things as folders in which to store documents; documents could be labeled. A document could have multiple labels, which broke the somewhat restrictive “filing cabinet” metaphor of many years of saving files. But over time the labels have started to look more and more like a folder/file directory structure familiar to all who have used File Explorer. The problem, though, is that these folders are still labels, many can be applied to the same document, even more can be applied by different people, and the net result is that people in teams can get very confused about where the hell anything is stored.

Google have also created separate Web apps for Docs, Sheets and Slides. Essentially these are a document view that only shows you your documents of those particular types, and I can see no benefit of any of them other than as an attempt to answer the question “How can we recreate what happens when someone clicks on the Word/Excel/Powerpoint icon on their PC?”. Confusing stuff…

Four – The death of telephony?

We are at an interesting point with telephony in businesses. Quite frankly, other than in specialist environments like contact centres, most people don’t really need a desk phone any more, and the two cloud-based suites start to push on this harder.

With Google, Hangouts is generally pretty good at offering voice, video and conferencing functions. There are a few bits of consumer functionality that raise corporate eyebrows (the ability to stick funny hats on people in conference calls might be wacky, but doesn’t really shout “we are a serious enterprise software provider”). The one gap is bridging to the traditional telephone network; you can do it, but as far as I know it involves individual users paying for the calls on a credit card linked to their account.

The story with Office 365 is more complicated. The Lync product is still entwined in the world of Unified Communications (a period in communications history I reckon will be looked back upon with the same quizzical face as the short era of Steam Diesels). You either integrate with a lumbering telephony solution, use a Cloud version (none of which I’ve heard good things about to date), or bite the bullet and realise that people actually don’t need “landlines” any more (with the exception of specialist edge cases like contact centres).

My hunch is that we are in the period when traditional telephony (ie calling someone on a telephone number) is beginning its exit stage left, much as when one day we work up and realised that we didn’t have fax machines any more. Slow, lumbering, all of a sudden…

Five – Multiple identities

At the moment with my own business and with my client activity I have:

  • three of my own Google Apps accounts (a legacy Gmail account to which I still have things like Android apps associated, my personal mattballantine.com account and my work stamplondon.co.uk account)
  • a Google Apps account for the domain run by one of my clients
  • a personal Microsoft ID associated with OneDrive and Office Online free services, Skype and so on
  • two Microsoft Office 365 accounts for consulting firms for whom I act as an associate
  • a (Microsoft hosted) Sharepoint Online account for document sharing with another one of my clients

Whilst the nature of my work is such that I realise I’m unusual in having so many online identities, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that anyone whose organisation uses Office365 is likely to have a personal Microsoft/OneDrive/Live/Hotmail/Whatever account, and similarly anyone working in a Google Apps shop is likely to have their own Google account. These services need to play well with themselves with multiple identities.

Google does it pretty well. I can quite happily have all four of my Google accounts up and running in different browser tabs, but I can also share things across the accounts pretty reasonably too. My hunch is that because Google Apps stemmed from the GMail products, the idea of multiple identities was supported from the get-go.

Actually it’s so good and keeping multiple identities separate, it’s the thing that for me makes Google+ unusable. When I get recommendations to connect with myself because I might have something in common with me, things aren’t right…

With Office 365 the story isn’t so hot. In browser incarnations you can only be logged into one Microsoft identity in a browser session at any one time. True, you can get around this by using different browsers (Explorer, Edge, Firefox, Chrome etc – although that’s not an option for me on the Chromebook), or you can use Incognito modes (but that means that cookie settings get lost against away) – but neither of these workarounds are particularly satisfactory.

Things get even more confused when you use the fat installed applications on Windows and then try to access files from the Cloud across identities. At the moment I have full Office suite tools installed on my Windows machine at home under the account provided to me by one of the consulting firms for whom I work. Trying to download a documents from Sharepoint Online into the Office suite on another account caused complete confusion. The promise of employees using corporate Office 365 at home when they have their own home subscriptions to Office will be messy by the looks of it.

Six – Capex/Opex

The is a common assumption amongst Cloud vendors that says that all of their customers prefer having IT costs as a variable operating cost (OPEX) rather than as capital investment (CAPEX). That’s not the case.

There are pros and cons of both, but organisations at different stages will want to have flexibility of how they account for technology spending. I have heard of Cloud software vendors coming up with “interesting” payment schemes that allow for customers to acquire software services on a capital basis.

It’s all accounting trickery. Quite what real capital asset value there is in some software once you’ve bought it is very questionable – reality is that you probably couldn’t resell it for a variety of reasons – but reality and management accounting are but two vaguely intersecting worlds. That Google and Microsoft’s services are only available as an operating cost is a barrier to some organisations that has nothing to do with the technology.

Seven – The power of new

Over the past five years, the Google suite has continued to evolve and has matured into a very credible enterprise service. In the same timeframe, Microsoft have gone from nothing (the words “cobbled together” are barely good enough to describe BPOS, Office 365’s predecessor) to a very credible Cloud-based service. The pace of development of the Microsoft suite is far out-pacing Google’s, and that’s a reflection of the relative size of the development resources that underpin the two products.

When it comes down to it, my overall view on the two products today is this:

  • Office 365 enables an organisation to move to a Cloud-based infrastructure for collaboration and productivity tools with a lower level of change disruption within the organisation because of a across familiar tools. It’s the easier option in the short term, but realistically because “it’s mostly the same” the chances that people in an organisation will actually change how they work is much lower, and behaviour change management efforts will need to be huge. Left to their own devices, working in familiar tools, people will continue to create and share information in the ways they always have done: save, attach, press send…
  • Google Apps is much more disruptive because it is much more different. Everything in the browser forces people to change their behaviours because they, well, have to. So the change pain up front is higher, the pressures on the IT group therefore higher, and generally it will be a far less easy ride. But that disruption will be likely to promote beneficial changes in people’s behaviour. However there are significant edge-cases (mostly focused around workflow integration into MS Office, and the extensive use of macros and complex spreadsheets in Excel) that mean that running purely on Google Apps is unlikely across the board in most big organisation, and if some people are still using Office, that will hold back the adoption of new ways of working…

Can you run your standard IT tools in the Cloud these days? Absolutely. Should any small business have their own server these days? You’d be mad to. Are all the issues ironed out for big enterprise? Not yet. Does Office 365 or Google Apps lead to better collaboration and increased productivity in organisations? Not on their own.

3 thoughts on “Seven things I’ve learned from using Office 365 and Google Apps

  1. Thank you, Matt. This was so timely and just what I was looking for in deciding about how to manage our email host’s exit from the email hosting business!

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