Office Online versus Google Apps: Facts and FUD

Woody Leonhard

Microsoft and Google are locked in battle over free-for-personal-use productivity applications. Each is fighting for your attention.

At this time, there’s no one best online suite; both are quite capable and both have some important limitations.

The state of the art in online productivity

Microsoft, Google, and Apple all offer online productivity suites that are free for personal use. And unlike past “free” suites (yes, I mean you, Microsoft Works and MS Office Web Apps!), these latest online suites are all surprisingly capable — and getting better almost weekly. In this discussion, I compare Office Online and Google Apps: two suites experienced Windows and Office users are most likely to use. Apple’s iWork for iCloud I’ll save for another day. It represents an elegant evolution of the Office genre, but there’s a significant learning curve for dyed-in-the-wool Office “Officionados.”

In short, Office Online and Google Apps are both so good you might not need to buy a standalone version of Office or subscribe to Office 365. Really! Microsoft and Google have their own reasons for dangling freebies at Windows users — more about that later. But whatever their motivations, using online suites could mean more money in your pocket.

But before I get into the details, let’s clarify some confusing terminology.

Four months ago, “Office Web Apps” was a backwater website that seemed to be a weak adjunct to the desktop version of Office. Then Microsoft launched Office Online and kicked the old website into the bit bucket.

For this article, I’ll review Word Online, Excel Online, and PowerPoint Online — the most popular parts of the various Office Online components (see Figure 1).

Office Online home page

Figure 1. Office Online's homepage offers all the productivity apps someone might need for personal use.

Google’s terminology is, if anything, even more convoluted than Microsoft’s. (And you didn’t think that was possible.) Officially, the suite I discuss in this article is known as Google Drive, though few people call it that. Google has, of course, a cloud-storage service known as “Google Drive” — it competes with Microsoft’s OneDrive.

For reasons that defy logic, the productivity tools once known as Google Apps — Document, Spreadsheet, and Presentation — now live under the cloud-storage, Google Drive site (see Figure 2). In common parlance, “Google Docs” might refer to just the word processor — or it might refer to all three productivity apps. And “Google Drive” might — or might not — include the cloud-storage component.

Google Docs home page

Figure 2. The homepage for the various Google productivity apps is Google Drive.

For some semblance of clarity, I’ll split the difference and call the three apps “Google Apps,” a term that might not precisely match up with Google’s documentation.

Both Microsoft’s and Google’s online productivity apps run only in Web browsers. You don’t install anything; simply fire up your browser, go to the appropriate site (office.com for Office Online and drive.google.com for Google Apps), sign in — and you’re ready to rock and roll. You will, of course, need a Microsoft account for Office Online and a Google account for Google Drive. Both accounts are free.

Based on my extensive testing, there’s almost no difference in running any of the apps in Chrome, Firefox, or Internet Explorer — or on a wide variety of platforms that included Win7, Win8, OS X, iOS, and Android.

Office Online is free for personal use and for some organizations (Office 365 for Nonprofits). For businesses, it starts at U.S. $60 per year/per person (Office 365 Small Business) and goes up from there (more info).

Google Apps/Drive is also free for personal use. The cost for organizations ranges from free (nonprofit and educational) to $50 per year/per person for Google Apps for Business (more info).

Both Office Online and Google Apps have familiar productivity-suite interfaces that aren’t amenable to touch-based tablet/small-screen use. In fact, Google Apps looks a lot like Office 2003 (see Figure 3).

Google Document

Figure 3. The look of Google Apps strongly resembles that of Office 2003.

Office Online takes the Office 2013 Ribbon approach, but its Ribbon looks rather toothless — it doesn’t have the depth of features found in Office 2013 (see Figure 4).

Word Online

Figure 4. As this view of Word Online shows, Office Online resembles Office 2013 — with some missing pieces.

Here’s how the two suites compare, broken down by word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation app.

Creating text: Word Online vs. Google Documents

You would expect that Word Online could open any Word file (.doc or .docx) — no matter how complex — let you make changes, and then save it unsullied. And you’d be wrong. Although it typically does a good job of maintaining the fidelity of the original document, I found several, in-the-wild documents that don’t appear (or render) correctly in Word Online — or that don’t survive the round trip back to standard Office.

Google’s Document (commonly shortened to Google Docs), on the other hand, frequently refused to open complex .doc or .docx files. There were also occasions when Google Docs opened a .docx file and then scrambled it on export back to the DOCX format. But that occurred mostly with documents containing extensive formatting.

Microsoft illustrated the problem in a YouTube promo video. A nicely formatted .docx file gets gutted by Google. Although everything in the video is quite accurate, there are — as far as I could tell — some nuances that real people might or might not encounter.

For example, the video’s test document wasn’t created in Word Online, and several of its features, such as a table of contents and formatted headers, aren’t supported in Word Online. So the sample file must have originated with Word for Windows or Mac.

In any case, if you tried to edit the document in the video, you’d be frustrated to learn that Word Online won’t let you crop figures or drag-and-drop them. But as you can see in Figure 3, cropping, rotating, or dragging-and-dropping figures in Google Docs works just like Word for the desktop. As Figure 4 shows, Word Online will let you only shrink or expand the graphic — in pre-defined increments.

At the end of the video, Microsoft shows real-time collaboration, a feature new to Word Online but part of Google Docs for years. Microsoft also “borrowed” automatic saving from Google Apps.

It would take a book to compare and contrast the features in Word Online and Google Docs — and the feature list is changing constantly. But here’s a quick look at the features you’re likely to use most.

Word Online won’t let you create or change styles. You can’t add text boxes, shapes, or SmartArt to a document — although you can delete an entire shape if it was put into the document with a desktop version of Word. As noted, pictures can’t be cropped or dragged-and-dropped, although they can be scaled up or down in fixed increments.

Word Online offers no Track Changes settings, though — again — you can see tracked changes that were inserted into a desktop version of Word. Also, if “Track Changes” was turned on in the original document, changes made to the document while in Word Online appear marked up when the document is opened in desktop Word. Word Online doesn’t support macros, and autocorrect is turned on — you can’t turn it off.

On the positive side, Word Online can maintain DOC/DOCX file fidelity if the document is not overly complex. It’s also easy to apply styles — as long as you can live with the predefined versions — and create headers, footers, tables, page numbers, and footnotes.

Google Docs’ offerings are significantly more robust. You can add or edit text boxes, shapes, drawings, and equations; there’s an on-screen ruler and format painting plus tools for image manipulation. And it supports Google’s own macro language.

Using Google Docs, I’ve had few fidelity problems with common DOC and DOCX files, but unusual formatting can throw the app for a loop. And because there’s no desktop version of Google Docs (at least, not yet), there’s no way to create custom styles, as you do in desktop Word. Moreover, formatting tables is difficult, and there’s no change-tracking function — although, as with Word Online, you can insert comments.

Neither Word Online nor Google Docs supports file-based password protection (although, oddly enough, Apple’s iWork does).

Bottom line: Both Word Online and Google Docs work just fine if you’re creating relatively common documents. You won’t design an advertising campaign with either, and you’d be hard-pressed to write a book that has anything more than text and a few illustrations. But for everyday tasks, it’s hard to justify spending money to get what’s now available free.

Balancing the books: Excel Online vs. Spreadsheet

For years, it was said that Google Spreadsheet (or Sheets) was useless because it wouldn’t automatically display long text in one cell across adjoining blank cells. That’s changed — along with about a million other first-generation limitations.

Both Excel Online and Google Spreadsheet support an astonishing array of spreadsheet features. Unless you have a crying need for pivot charts and tables — available only with Excel Online — the list of features supported by one app and not the other will be important only to those who have some specific spreadsheet requirements.

For example, Google Sheets offers some conditional formatting; however, you won’t find any in Excel Online. Sheets also gives you “Paste transpose.” On the other hand, Excel Online has Freeze Panes; autocomplete; and drop-down, data-entry controls (lists). Google Sheets doesn’t. Text box contents can, in some cases, be edited in Google Sheets but not in Excel Online, as best I can tell.

Google Sheets will open XLS and XLSX files with embedded macros; Excel Online refuses to edit spreadsheets with embedded macros. That, to my way of thinking, is a big plus in Google’s favor.

Both apps can make charts till the cows come home, run autofill, include hyperlinks, and provide formatting of every conceivable type. The list goes on and on.

Working with both spreadsheet apps on real-world files, I found another significant difference. If you have a heavily formatted XLS or XLSX generated by a desktop version of Excel, the formatting might get zapped by Google Sheets. But then again, Sheets supports macros and Excel Online doesn’t.

Talking points: PowerPoint Online vs. Slides

Microsoft’s and Google’s online word processors and spreadsheet apps might run neck-and-neck, but when it comes to creating presentations, there’s a clear winner. Google Slides does an excellent job of duplicating PowerPoint on the desktop. Microsoft’s own PowerPoint Online doesn’t come close.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that PowerPoint Online is virtually useless for any task beyond creating extremely simple slideshows with minimal transitions. PowerPoint Online has no Slide Sorter view or Outline view; it has no Presenter view, so any embedded notes are useless. And though you can insert pictures into new slides, you can’t do so with slides you’ve created previously — either in the desktop PowerPoint or PowerPoint Online.

Tales of woe abound when trying to work with any sort of media. For example, inserting a music clip or video into a presentation using PowerPoint Online seems to have a 50-50 chance of crashing the program. And once you add media, you must have Microsoft’s Silverlight installed to see them.

Google Presentation, by contrast, has full support for pictures — including cutouts, drawing, and canvases. There’s a fully functional slide sorter, speaker notes, and gobs of transitions and animations. You get lots of formatting capabilities, and inserting media onto a slide doesn’t immediately crash the program.

At best, PowerPoint Online is useful for making minor edits to presentations created in the desktop version of the app. Otherwise, if you have any reason to create or edit a presentation online, do it with Google Presentation.

Summing up the important considerations

Most users should not find it difficult to work with either productivity suite. As noted, Office Online looks similar to Office 2013, and Google Apps will seem familiar to Office 2003 users. But neither is well suited for use on touch screens, tablets, or other small-screen digital devices.

Many Office Online users will still access it primarily as an adjunct to their desktop versions of the suite. And for that application, it’s relatively good at maintaining the fidelity of the original file. But it’s far from perfect. It’s also fine for individuals who want to create relatively simple documents. That said, Office Online lacks some features that a typical Office user might need frequently. And PowerPoint Online can’t do much at all.

Google Apps, on the other hand, also does a good job maintaining the content and formatting of simple desktop-Office generated docs — probably better than you would expect. And Google Apps offers many more tools if you’re working exclusively within the Google environment.

Perhaps most important for advanced users, Google Apps supports macros — a capability that might make all the other feature comparisons moot. Microsoft promises it will deliver programmability to Office Online — someday.

In either case, if you need to work with complex documents and want to keep them whole, you have no choice but to stick with the full Windows or OS X versions of Office.

Keep in mind that both Google and Microsoft are trying to steer you to their online-storage systems. Both offer 15 GB free for personal use. Microsoft has an ulterior motive: OneDrive makes moving files between Office Online and desktop Office very easy. The ‘Softies undoubtedly hope that, by locking you into OneDrive, you’ll eventually pay for Office.

But Google has an ulterior motive, too — though a very different one. If you have a free Google account, Google can and probably will scan everything — absolutely everything — associated with your account to serve up targeted ads. There’s nothing you can do about it. (On the other hand, Google does not scan data associated with paid accounts. Nor does it scan email from or to academic Gmail accounts.)

For some people, Google’s penchant for scanning accounts is an unconscionable invasion of privacy. For others, it’s just creepy. Fortunately, there are no soulless drones poking through your files to see whether you’re cheating the IRS (isn’t that the NSA’s job?) or criticizing Obamacare.

Still, you need to be ever cognizant that Google might be rummaging through everything you post, all to deliver ads you’ll click — and click again.

Also consider that these suites are changing continuously. Any conclusion you draw today might change next month or even next week. That’s good news, actually, because with each passing week, you have fewer and fewer reasons to spend money on an office suite.



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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2014-06-26:

Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.