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Cloud Computing Applications

Simply tested: Google, Microsoft and Zoho cloud office suites

In the first of an occasional series that attempts to take the mystique out of product testing, we examine cloud productivity suites.

The popularity of cloud office suites is growing because workers are less tied to their desks, or to a single machine.

For example, your employees may be equipped with a laptop, a tablet and a smartphone. They may use each of these at different times and in different places, so it makes no sense to keep all their documents on one device. Far better to be able to access – and share – them from anywhere.

Data storage services like Dropbox offer one solution. You could keep your organisation's documents there and use native productivity suite clients on each machine to access them. But it's simpler to be able to use the same company's software on each device, which is what cloud office suites offer. They all allow you to create, edit and share documents online.

Which one do you need?

Whether you're the owner of an SME or the CEO of a large corporation, there's a cloud office suite that'll suit your business. But which one?

Some comparative reviews give you lists of features, telling you that X is better than Y at plotting 3D pie charts, or Z is better than X at exporting documents to PDF. There's nothing wrong with that approach, and you may find such reviews useful (though see our sidebar, 'A long pedigree').

But what matters here is the business perspective. For example, you probably don't care about saving $3 per user on software if that extra $3 would save you $300 per user in productivity.

So we've taken a broader, holistic look at three cloud office suites to help you identify the most suitable one for your organisation. Then you can drill down into your specific business requirements yourself, using free trial accounts if necessary.

A long pedigree

Office suites were once the mainstay of the software market. Regardless of the operating system, the office suite was one of the first packages to be installed if you wanted to get any actual work done. New releases – roughly every 18 months – were eagerly anticipated and pored over by IT journalists.

We were always looking for new productivity features, faster and better ways of doing things. What we often got, even as far back as the 1990s, was more bloat. Features were added simply because the developers could take advantage of faster computers with more storage capacity, but many of those features would only be used by a tiny percentage of users.

We'd comb through them carefully, test everything thoroughly and publish our results: sometimes more than 40 pages of comparative reviews and insight. And then businesses would buy Microsoft Office anyway because senior management told them to.

A similar thing is happening today. Not the bloat, but the constraints. Browser-based software tends to make heavy use of JavaScript and other client-side tools. A decade ago it would have been unthinkable to run an office suite through a browser, but these days it's not just possible, but practical.

Still, there are constraints – bandwidth, client processing power, screen size, compatibility issues – that means developers have to be careful which features they include and which ones they leave out.

That's why cloud office suites tend to be less feature-rich than their native, fully-installed cousins. And that's why there are different types of office suite appropriate for different types of business.

Let’s look at them.

Google Docs

When many people think of cloud office suites, they think of Google Docs (more accurately Google Apps, which is the name for the full office package including email, calendar, etc.). It has a very simple interface, it's welcoming to newcomers and it makes document sharing easy. There are native clients for iOS and Android, with all the functionality available through modern browsers too.

I use Google Docs on a regular basis because one of my clients requires it. Most of the time it's pretty slick, though it can be picky about browsers. Last year it warned me that some features were disabled because I was using an 'out of date' browser. My browser was actually a mere six months old. The fact that it was Firefox rather than Chrome may or may not have had some bearing on the matter.

google-docs

The word-processing client, which is where I spend most of my time, is functional if basic. Advanced formatting tools are notable by their absence, and sometimes it can be problematic importing documents created in other software suites: the formatting tends to get messed up, though not catastrophically so. But for 98% of the time it's good enough for the job, and I've shared, edited, created and commented on hundreds of documents and spreadsheets using it.

google-add-ons

Where Google Docs wins is its usability. It's so easy to use that clubs, societies and other social groups go straight for it and can get to grips with it quickly. The focus is on sharing, in Docs itself and in Google Drive where those documents are stored. The interface does a good job of hiding features that the average user doesn't require. For most people who need to create office documents and spreadsheets, it will more than suffice.

Pricing can be found here and it starts at $50 per user per year for business clients.

Microsoft Office 365

Microsoft doesn't always get it right. Windows 8 was proof of that, and there have been versions of Microsoft Office that were, relatively speaking, pretty awful in terms of improvement over previous incarnations. But Microsoft has been publishing office software for almost 30 years on its own platforms, fighting off competition from numerous other office software vendors along the way. That's a lot of useful experience with which to get things right.

It also makes it hard to let go. Nobody would expect Microsoft to simply put all the functionality of its office suite online, for free, for anyone to use. That would be a massive waste of intellectual property and a destruction of one of the company's major revenue streams. So forget about a Microsoft equivalent of Google Docs. That would be dumb. Wouldn't it?

microsoft-word

You can in fact create a free Microsoft account and start using Office 365 online straight away. The software works either via a browser or using an iOS, Android or Windows Phone device. The online functionality is limited compared to the installed version of Office, but you wouldn't know it to start with. In fact the difference compared to the bare version of Google Docs is startling. One looks like a proper office tool, the other doesn't.

This isn't really fair, of course. Google Docs has plenty of third-party plug-ins available to increase its functionality, many of them free. You just have to choose which ones you want, whereas with Office 365 it's either the 'bare' online version or one of Microsoft's licensed installed versions. But the bare version of Microsoft Office 365 feels pretty capable and looks like a proper piece of office software.

You can store documents online with Microsoft's OneDrive or via Dropbox, and sharing is straightforward. The interface fits well with the PC version of the full suite, so existing users shouldn't have any difficulties using the online version.

microsoft-excel-templates

It's not without glitches, but I only found minor ones. One of the more complex templates failed to open, while attempting to load another took the entire browser down with it (Firefox again: I might have had more luck with IE). But the others worked fine, and again I'm prepared to make allowances here, since I'm running this on Linux. Yes, Microsoft Office running native on Linux... sort of.

After using Google Docs for so long, I found Office 365 to be a refreshing change. It somehow feels more professional, which is a reflection of Microsoft's long and distinguished history of making office applications.

Pricing can be found here and it starts at $5 per user per month with 'annual commitment'.

Zoho Docs

Not as well-known as the other two, Zoho is an interesting company which has a range of online services. Its Docs software isn't even particularly emphasised on its home page: CRM tools are given greater prominence. Given that Zoho is (or can be) integrated within Google Drive (you may have seen the option to 'Open in Zoho Docs' when previewing a document), is it really a competitor?

zoho-docs

In one respect it certainly is: pricing for business users starts at $0. You can have an unlimited number of business users for free, though they'll have to share the 5GB of available storage. That's quite a draw even compared to the fairly modest fees charged by Google and Microsoft, although you'll have to pay extra if you want things like password-protected sharing or emailing files directly into the software.

zoho-docs-google-upload

There are native clients for iOS and Android and desktop operating systems: a link at the bottom of the screen told me I can get the software for Linux too. But is Zoho Docs any good? First impressions say it is. The feature set is closer to Office 365 than the bare version of Google Docs, with tabbed options for comprehensive document formatting tools.

It feels a little sluggish at times, though. Entering a list of numbers into the spreadsheet meant waiting for a few seconds while the software decided how best to align them. Perhaps this is a consequence of the feature set, which includes the ability to edit VBA macros and set up mail merges from imported data sheets. That's pretty impressive for an office suite running in a browser.

So, to conclude...

I've inevitably covered just the basics here. It would take an army of researchers to compare the full features of each package. For example, I can't run full file compatibility tests with every type of document you're likely to use. But that's less of an issue these days, because you can try all three suites for free and do it yourself.

What I can do is point you in the right direction. If you're really on a budget, or you think you might need some specific features that you wouldn't necessarily expect to find in cloud office software, take a look at Zoho Docs. It's surprisingly feature-packed and you could equip your entire business with genuinely free cloud office software: that's not something to be sniffed at.

If you have a large volume of legacy Microsoft Office documents, or you deal regularly with clients who use such formats, then really your choice is Microsoft Office 365. But even if you don't have those constraints, it's still worth considering. This for me is the most professional-looking suite of the three. It takes a lot of thought to make a browser app look and feel like a standalone office suite, but Microsoft has managed it.

Where does that leave Google? Everywhere else. It's fast, accessible, usable and great for sharing files. It will be many people's go-to office suite because it's so easy to get into and use.

So there is a cloud office suite for every type of business. And, since these online suites are upgraded and bug-fixed constantly behind the scenes, having up-to-date office software for all your employees has probably never been so inexpensive and convenient.

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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