Google Apps vs. Microsoft Office: The Battle for Your Business Gets Ugly

Last Monday, I attended Google’s Atmosphere, a conference at its Silicon Valley headquarters. Other than journalists, the packed audience consisted of CIOs attending at Google’s invitation.

The event’s nominal topic was cloud computing, and the speaker lineup — including Google employee and Internet co-creator Vint Cerf, Harvard Law School Professor Jonathan Zittrain, and DreamWorks Animation’s Kate Swanborg — was impressive. But Google’s overarching goal was obvious: It wanted to sell all those CIOs on the idea of dumping Microsoft’s venerable Office suite and Exchange server software in favor of its Google Apps services. And maybe even replacing PCs with the Web-centric devices known as Chromebooks.

By bringing so many business IT strategists to its home court, Google hoped to get their undivided attention. But up in Redmond, Wash. Microsoft was busy lobbing snarky little missiles of fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the direction of the conference.

It did so in the form of two blog posts — here’s one, and here’s the other — explicitly designed to raise troubling questions about Google’s Atmosphere pitch even before the conference got underway.

For Google, Microsoft pointed out, business productivity is a sideline that amounts to a rounding error: The company makes 96 percent of its revenue from advertising. The Google Apps services are immature in comparison to their Office counterparts. And Office remains so useful that even job listings for open positions at Google seek applicants who know how to use Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Microsoft also said that it isn’t worried about Google Apps threatening its Office business.

What Microsoft Won’t Admit

The software company doth protest too much, methinks. True, Google Apps for Business, which provides a Web-based office suite, email, and other tools for $50 per user per year, won’t render Office obsolete anytime soon.

But if Apps was manifestly mediocre and irrelevant, Microsoft could simply ignore it. Instead, it’s busily trying to undermine it.

And Google is biting back: On the Google+ social network, Dave Girouard, a Google vice president, linked to one of Microsoft’s blog posts and declared it “lame.”

As a user of both Microsoft and Google products, the public squabbling makes me uneasy. Microsoft’s blog posts in particular feel like negative campaigning that happens to be aimed at a product rather than a political candidate. Some of the points they raise are important, but the churlish tone hurts Microsoft more than it hurts Google.

With both Office and Google Apps, I’m struck by the degree to which the products reflect Microsoft and Google’s own corporate personalities. Microsoft has built a product for Microsoft-like organizations; Google has built one for Google-like ones. That makes the emphasis radically different.

A Tale of Two Corporate Cultures

In the case of Office, the personality in question is cautious and conservative. Microsoft knows it has a good thing in the perennial cash cow that is Office. It also understands that this Internet thing isn’t just a fad. Those dueling priorities are visible in Office 365, a pay-as-you-go version which competes with Google Apps by bundling the conventional desktop-based version of Office with Web-hosted services.

Office 365 lets companies dip a toe into the cloud without giving up anything they like about Office 2010: It’s Office in all its traditional power, plus Web-based tools. But it’s not for organizations that want to make a decisive shift to online services. The Office Web Apps are mini-me sidekicks to full-blown Office, not replacements for it, and there’s no sign that Microsoft intends future versions to be anything else.

How about Google? It understands that lots of businesses won’t even flirt with Google Apps until it fills in some of the holes that Microsoft loves to remind people about. It announced at Atmosphere, for example, that it’s finally offering 24/7 phone support rather than expecting customers to seek assistance by e-mail.

It also recently beefed up Google Apps’ presentation program, historically the suite’s weakest link.

What You Want, What You’ve Got

Overall, though, Apps remains a product aimed at companies which — like Google — have an aversion to desktop software, a love of the cloud, and a hunger to figure out where things are going so they can get there first. It’s missing lots of features, and most of it stops working if you don’t have an Internet connection. (I still wonder what Google employees do when they take flights that don’t have Wi-Fi.) But it’s sleek, fundamentally collaborative, fun in ways that Office may never be, and both the apps and your documents are available on any computer that has a browser, period.

At Atmosphere, both Google execs and CIOs sometimes seemed to be as excited about Apps’ potential as they were about its present state. For instance, some of them expressed enthusiasm for using Google+ as an internal tool — even though it’s still missing most of the features you’d want an in-house communications network to offer. (Google itself is using a private version of Google+ that isn’t available to us outsiders.)

Ultimately, Office feels like it’s about protecting what you’ve already got; Apps errs on the side of opening up new possibilities. Both approaches have their pluses, but neither is entirely satisfying on its own.

Why Pick Sides?

It’s not surprising, then, that plenty of companies are choosing to meld them.

One of the speakers at Atmosphere was Michael O’Brien, CIO of Milwaukee-based media company Journal Communications. Not surprisingly, he’s a major Google Apps fan. But he has no plans to forcibly expunge Microsoft Office from his company. Instead, he’s allowing employees to make the transition at their own pace. He wants them to adopt Google Apps willingly. And he’s found that it’s possible for one business to use both Office and Google Apps and still get stuff done.

That blended approach makes sense to me. If every organization on earth followed Microsoft’s cues, the speed of business-productivity innovation would be achingly slow. But if every organization were compelled to adopt Google’s services immediately and exclusively, a lot of important work couldn’t get done.

Keep that in mind as these two companies compete fiercely for your company’s business — and don’t feel bad if you conclude that neither one has figured it all out for you just yet.