However, there are also major differences between the two suites and evaluated each in turn to discover how easy it might be for a business used to desktop productivity tools (such as Microsoft Office) to make the move to the cloud.
Switching to Google Apps is both quick and easy, with just the one subscription plan to choose from, priced at $5 per user per month — or $50/user/year ($4.17/user/month) if you commit to an annual contract — regardless of who you are or what you want to do.
For this one fixed subscription you get access to the entire suite of Google applications, including Gmail with a 30GB inbox along with Google Calendar plus Google Drive for word processing, Sheets, Slides and cloud storage plus shared workspaces in the guise of Google Sites — easy-to-build websites that can be put to all manner of purposes — with 10GB of storage for uploaded files.
Users can be added to and removed from the parent account as required and you can purchase additional Google Drive storage as required. You can also use your own domain name rather than the Google-hosted alternative with a simple automated service to set this up.
Of course you won’t want everyone to have the same rights, so access to applications, sharing privileges and other options can be centrally administered, with this and other management tasks achieved through an straightforward browser interface — much like that used throughout the Google Apps suite.
A browser, in fact, is all you really need to use Google Apps and you can use just about any one you like. Chrome is an obvious choice and a must-have if you want offline access to documents, but it’s far from essential. We had no problems with either Firefox or Internet Explorer on the desktop, and encountered few issues on tablets or smartphones. Indeed, one of the big selling points of Google Apps is how easy it is to access regardless of what you happen to be using — Windows PC, Apple Mac, Chromebook, Android or Apple iOS device.
Where available, custom apps for consumer versions of Google’s cloud services (such as Drive) can also be used with the business product and third-party applications purchased from the Google Apps Marketplace to further enhance the service.
Microsoft is not known for simple product lines and straight forward licensing plans, and has done little to alter that perception in Office 365, which comes in a variety of guises for home, small business and enterprise use. The consumer-focused Home Premium service concentrates on desktop productivity rather than email and collaboration. The Home licence also forbids commercial use, it initially signed up for Office 365 Small Business, which can be had for $15 per user per month — or $150/user/year ($12.50/user/month) on an annual contract — with a limit of 25 users. Beyond that, you’ll need to consider the Midsize Business (up to 300 users) or Enterprise (unlimited users) plans.
As well as all the Microsoft Web Apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Publisher, InfoPath and Access), business users get Exchange Online for email complete with shared calendars and a 25GB inbox per licence plus antivirus and spam protection. Business users also get Lync Online for communications and SharePoint Online for collaboration and storage. Note that, instead of the consumer-focused SkyDrive service, business users get SkyDrive Pro: together with customisable Team Sites, this is hosted by SharePoint with a total of 10GB of storage provided, plus 7GB of SkyDrive Pro per user.
Desktop apps aren’t included in the basic small business services, so looked at the recently released Small Business Premium offering, which at £10.10 (ex. VAT) per user per month — £100.80/user/year (£8.40/user/month) on an annual contract — is likely to be a popular choice. That’s because it allows users to download the full desktop Office 2013 suite — just as in Office 365 Home Premium — on up to five devices. It also adds Office on Demand streaming for desktop use without ‘installing’ in the conventional sense and without affecting the five-device allocation. In US money, the Small Business Premium costs $15/user/month, or $150/user/year ($12.50/user/month) on an annual contract.
By default business customers get a sub-domain hosted by Microsoft, but you can use you own with flexible options when it comes to DNS and email hosting. Either way, management is done using a web interface featuring the minimalistic Windows 8 look and feel. You can found that a huge improvement over the previous implementation, with lots of help, guidance and navigational aids making it easy to add and delete user accounts, control access, customise team sites and perform other day-to-day tasks.
For this evaluation, it used a mix of Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome, all of which worked as expected and, overall, It was very impressed by just how responsive the latest implementation of Office 365 appeared to be. Some setup work was required to integrate desktop implementations of Office on existing computers, but this can be initiated by users and is quick and painless.
When it comes to mobile integration, however, the picture is a little less rosy. On Windows platforms, such as Windows 8 Pro, RT and Windows Phone, all is well and Exchange/mobile integration is good. However, on some of the Android devices I tried I could only view rather than edit documents, and the consumer SkyDrive app wouldn’t log into the business SkyDrive Pro service.
The leading cloud-hosted office productivity and collaboration suites are Google Apps and Microsoft’s Office 365. Both offer similar hosted email and calendaring options, web-based document editing plus cloud-based storage — and, for business users, the ability to communicate and work collaboratively.