Google Apps vs. Office 365 vs. Zoho Docs: Cloud-Based Office Suites Showdown

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Compatibility

Most businesses rely on Microsoft Office as their primary desktop productivity suite. The value of any rival package hinges on how compatible it is with Microsoft Office formatting conventions and file types.

When it comes to document fidelity--maintaining formatting consistency while moving from a Microsoft Office program to a cloud-based equivalent and back again (or in the other direction)--none of the online productivity platforms is perfect.

Google has gone to great lengths to improve fidelity with Microsoft Office, but it hasn't gone far enough. Google Apps can capably open and work with Microsoft Office file formats, but many features--such as tables of contents, footnotes, or inserted images--end up being reformatted in Google terms, and they remain that way when you revert to the native Microsoft Office software.

Zoho Docs is in the same boat as Google Apps in regard to file fidelity, but Zoho has an advantage over Google in supported file types. Zoho can export files in the current XML-based formats used in Office 2007 and 2010, while Google Apps is limited to saving Office files in the outdated .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats.

As you might expect, Office 365 beats out both rivals in this department. Within Office 365, you won't necessarily be able to insert or edit many of the advanced formatting features from the desktop Office programs--such as footnotes, headers, or a table of contents--but you can view them, and at least they won't screw up.

Winner: Office 365
Microsoft's online offering takes this category by a clear margin.

Mobile and Browsers

Looking at performance on mobile devices and Web browsers, it should come as no surprise that Office 365 works best with Windows Phone 7 and Internet Explorer 9, while the Google Apps package excels on Android and in Chrome. Zoho doesn't have the mobile platform or Web browser loyalties of the other two.

With the upcoming "Mango" update, officially named Windows Phone 7.5, the Microsoft mobile platform will have native integration of Office 365 and Windows Live SkyDrive, making it the best integrated mobile platform--assuming that you use Office 365 and SkyDrive.

On the other hand, if you use Google Apps, Android is the mobile platform for you. Google offers a Google Docs app for Android; the app is a little rough around the edges, but for many tasks it works better than using the mobile browser, especially on a smartphone.

Office 365 and Google Apps both work fine for viewing files on an iPhone or iPad, but editing is another story. In Office 365, the file opens in a browser-based viewer; then, if you want to edit the material, you have to use the iOS 'Open In...' function to open the file in an iOS app such as Pages or Documents To Go.

Google Apps allows for basic text editing when in mobile mode. It offers an option to switch to working with the file using the full desktop-browser tools--but when I tried to work in that mode, Google returned an error message.

Zoho is the only one of the three productivity suites that seems to function normally in iOS using the mobile Safari browser. It also offers the most consistent experience from mobile device to mobile device, and from browser to browser.

Winner: Zoho
Organizations willing to capitalize on the close relationship that Office 365 has with Windows Phone 7 and Internet Explorer--or the connection that Google Apps has with Android and Chrome--will probably be satisfied. But Zoho takes the prize overall for mobile platforms and Web browsers.

Price

For individual users, or very small companies consisting of just a handful of users, all three online platforms offer free tools that are roughly equivalent, but with limited features. Businesses that need more-robust productivity tools and capabilities, though, have to pay a price.

Zoho Docs has two pricing options: $3 per user per month, and $5 per user per month. The plans are similar, but for $5 per user per month you can add twice as many workspaces, and you get a few additional features, including the ability to share documents with users outside of Zoho without requiring them to set up a Zoho account. In either case, email is a separate service that costs $2.50 or $3.50 per user per month, depending on the Zoho Docs plan.

Google Apps for Business costs $5 per user per month, or $50 per user per year. Office 365 has a variety of plans for different-size companies with assorted needs; the plan most comparable to those of Google Apps and Zoho Docs costs $6 per user per month.

The $3-per-month Zoho plan seems like the least expensive, but it also omits central features--such as email--found in rival plans. Office 365 offers slightly more features and capabilities than the other two, so the additional dollar per user per month seems justified. However, when you start looking at the more advanced--and more expensive--choices from Microsoft, it becomes harder to make a direct comparison.

Winner: Google Apps
Of the three, Google Apps is the best value. The annual pricing of $50 per user per year makes it about a third less per user per year than Office 365, yet it delivers equivalent functionality sufficient for most small and medium-size organizations.

For an extra $15 per month, Office 365 users can also get the license to download the desktop Office 2010 Professional suite. At a total of $21 per user per month, this path is significantly more costly than the Web-only options. It adds functionality lacking in the Office Web Apps, though, and it lets users be productive even in the absence of an Internet connection.

That $252 per user per year for Office 365 is a short-term savings. Office 365 will cost more when that amount adds up to $504 over two years, whereas the Office 2010 Professional suite has a street price of $410. The value of moving to the cloud depends on how long you plan to use the Office 2010 suite before upgrading, and how much value you will get from having the added functionality of the desktop suite.

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