From the Actrix Online Informer July 2011

Online documentation tools: Google vs Microsoft

by Rob Zorn

It doesn’t seem like too long ago that Google was just a search engine. You used it to check the scores of sports games, to find recipes and to win arguments, but that was all.

Then slowly Google started adding features to its repertoire, expanding the corporation beyond internet-searching. Such additions include Gmail in 2004, Google Earth and Video in 2005, and Google Translate in 2006.

Perhaps one of the more popular and functional additions to Google has been Google Docs in 2005, an online word-processor that allowed users to create and immediately share documents, spreadsheets and presentations with other users the world over. Until then the word processing market had been dominated by Microsoft Office’s Word, and its compatriots Excel and PowerPoint. Online word processing was a fairly new concept; a niche market Google could dominate.

But not for long…

In 2008 Microsoft unveiled plans to build a series of web-based applications based on its Office productivity suite. Users would be able to load and edit Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations online, making it possible to share and access these documents around the world. Microsoft’s Office Web turned online word processing into a battle-ground and challenged Google Docs to a fight to the death. As consumers it’s great news, as competition generally creates a better product. The hard part is choosing which one to use!

The main reason anyone would use either of these products is to be able to collaborate with other users, to share documents, and to be able to access their documents away from their personal computer. It's a great productivity tool for teams working on the same project, for small business staff working together, or for any group with a common interest.

So how do they compare?

With any product comparison one of the first things anyone will ask is how much do they cost? While it’s a common question, the answer is certainly rare. Both Google Docs and Microsoft’s Web applications will cost you nothing. All you need for Google Docs is a Google account (free), and all you need for Microsoft’s applications is a Windows Live account (also free). Google Docs will run on any web browser, and Microsoft Apps run on Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and even Chrome. There’s no mention of Opera, but it seems to work fine there too. So far, all tied up.

But what about aesthetics and functionality? It’s all good to have free stuff, but no-one wants an ugly program that’s poorly designed and impossible to use.

Just like the search engine, Google Docs has a simple look and feel to it; everything is laid out in front of you, and it just takes little practice to get the most out of the product. On the other hand Microsoft had no problems with sacrificing a bit of simplicity for functionality. Their Web applications are nearly identically based on their Office 2010 suite with a similar usability, which in this case puts them a bit ahead of Google Docs.

While Google Docs is simple to use and easy on the eye, it lacks the editing edge that Microsoft supplies. Basic editing tools are present in Google, but no way near as much as Microsoft. That said, Microsoft’s Web applications aren’t as functional as their Office suite, but are still a step ahead of Google Docs.

While Microsoft may take this one, one of the advantages of Google Docs is its auto-save feature. Every time a change is made to a document, an updated version is created. But rather than saving over previous versions, it creates an almost limitless file of old versions. So if something happened and you needed to go back to a previous version, all you’d need to do is use the “infinite undo” feature to find any previous version.

One the main advantages of using Google Docs is its real-time collaboration. As soon as a change is made to a document, the updated version is immediately available to anyone who has access to the document. No need to save changes and re-share the document, which is one of the issues with Microsoft’s product. With Microsoft’s Web applications, if you were to make a change to a document, everyone else with access would be oblivious to the change unless they were resent the document. Google’s real-time collaboration is just a step above in this department.

Another reason why Google ultimately takes the cake is that users wishing to download a document from Google Docs can be running any operating system the wish and formatting and usability will be maintained. Downloading a document from Microsoft is a bit more of a mission. The files don’t like being printed from other non-window’s platforms, and will only download in the latest Microsoft Office formats, so you won’t be able to view and edit any documents unless you also have the latest version of Office on your computer.

When it comes to versatility and variation of products on offer, Microsoft’s in pole position. While both Microsoft and Google offer word processors, spreadsheets and presentation platforms, Microsoft’s years of experience in building these platforms give them the edge. Google’s word processor lacks an auto-correct feature, its spreadsheets don’t allow for any sort of complicated formulas, and their presentation platforms lack necessary image editing tools.

There are a couple more things to know when comparing these two online office suites. While Google Docs offers users 1GB of room for storing uploaded files, Microsoft offers users a whopping 25GB. Google offers numerous free templates for your documents. Microsoft also offers templates, but not as many and they need to be downloaded separately before they can be uploaded again and used.

So does Microsoft’s experience in creating office suites put them on top? Or does Google’s original platform in its simplicity and practicality push them ahead? There really is no wrong or right answer. Of course you will like one more than the other, and that’s the key. Have a look, try them out. One or the other (or both) will surely meet all your online collaboration needs.

For a simple guide to using Google Docs, click here.

For a simple guide to using Microsoft’s Web Apps, click here.


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