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Not So Suite: Microsoft Office vs. Google Docs

Everyone has a Microsoft Office horror story. Outlook slowed to a crawl after you tried to send a file larger than 50 GB. PowerPoint suddenly stopped functioning during a presentation. Entire Word files irreversibly transformed into pages and pages of asterisks. Hours wasted trying to make a simple chart in Excel.

Despite these occasional hiccups, Microsoft Office—the suite of desktop applications including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint—has maintained a firm grip on the office productivity software market since its debut in 1989.

Much of its early success can certainly be attributed to its bundling with Microsoft’s other big product—Windows, the operating system powering 84 percent of the world’s computers. But Office is no Internet Explorer. Ubiquity was part of its success, but its programs have also been more functional and feature-rich than competing products. More than 500 million people worldwide use Office. In 2011 alone, Office generated an estimated $22.2 billion of Microsoft’s nearly $70 billion in fiscal revenue.

Office has faced few rivals during its two decades-plus at the top. But this began to change in 2007 with the debut of Google Docs and the increasing popularity of open source suites like Apache’s OpenOffice. In October of 2011, Google announced that 4 million businesses and 40 million people around the globe had bounced over to Google Apps, its suite of Office-like applications that includes Gmail, Google Talk, Calendar, and Docs.

Laundry List of Lamentations

Common complaints among Office users include the lofty price-tag, long load times, needlessly relocated tools in newer editions, and irksome automatic features that are a hassle to deactivate. “Clippy,” the annoying digital assistant packed into editions of Office in the late nineties and early aughts, drew widespread derision from users and inspired sardonic parodies on both The Simpsons and Family Guy. Office 365, Microsoft’s attempt to offer a cloud-based suite similar to Google Apps, has also drawn complaints—primarily regarding its optimization for Windows at the expense of other platforms.

Because of these and other problems, many businesses are reconsidering their commitment to Office.

“The Office suite is a solid, mature, and flexible product but it can also sometimes be burdensome due to its overabundance of features, weak collaborative offering, and un-intuitive design,” says Andy Bauch, chief technology officer at Cloud Cover Music. “It is also unattractive from a price perspective with many competitors offering free or cheap products with comparable base feature sets.”

Instead of Office, Bauch’s music streaming company uses Google Apps.

“[Google] allows us to easily work as a team on the same project without emailing Word or Excel files back and forth,” he explains. “I haven’t used Office 365 yet but my gut instinct tells me it won’t offer anything significant that Google Docs doesn’t offer, aside from seamless integration with other Microsoft products.”

However, Bauch admits that Google Apps is far from perfect. He cites several major problems, including security concerns, synching problems, and what he calls its “immaturity.”  Other users have also been vexed by its constrictive file fidelity, lack of a thesaurus, and various “Google-centric” limitations.

Tom Hughes-Croucher of web consulting firm Jetpacks for Dinosaurs also endorses Google Apps, along with several of Apple’s suite-style programs, and Zoho for its invoicing and time tracking. But he admits that Google Apps is still a work in progress.

“I can see some areas where the cloud solutions are lacking [and] the documents look really sterile,” he says. “Right now with Google it’s mostly Google’s way or the highway. It will be good to see them catch up in the future.”

Still the Champ?

Microsoft’s competition is formidable, but Office maintains many sizable advantages that shouldn’t be underestimated. Its biggest edge is clearly its aforementioned ubiquity in the market, which has translated into familiarity and dependability for a global audience of users. Many students and office workers have learned all of the hot keys and formatting tricks in Word and Excel and have no interest in devoting the time necessary to master other software. And many businesses and government offices count on people having access to these programs to open up .doc and .xlsx files.

In addition, Microsoft is finally taking steps to keep pace with Google and other challengers. CEO Steve Ballmer recently announced that Office will be transitioning into a cloud service with the newest version of the software suite, Office 15.  Rather than purchasing the complete bundle, the company is encouraging businesses and individuals to gain access through a subscription service which offers 20GB of “SkyDrive” storage.

“Microsoft is still in an extremely strong position with mid-to-large businesses,” says Ian Spencer, a partner and CTO at Red Edge, an Arlington, Virginia-based digital advocacy startup. “But it’s clear that they made a major mistake in only slowly recognizing the needs of small, decentralized businesses such as ours.”

One of the biggest challenges that Office’s competitors face is the same one that has dogged Microsoft for decades: being all things to all people. Everyone from students to lawyers to government officials need word processing, spreadsheet, and slide presentation software. It’s a daunting task to create a program that’s absolutely perfect for all members of an impossibly diverse customer base.

New customers are already expressing grievances about Google Apps. Printing usually involves converting to PDF, which strips away some formatting. There’s no easy way to work on files when you’re not connected to the Internet. And all of your documents are vulnerable should anyone ever hijack your Google account.

It’s too early to say who will win this ongoing battle for software supremacy. But don’t expect Microsoft Office, a well-funded incumbent, to go down without a fight. If Clippy sees a brawl coming, he will suggest “gloves off.”

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