User interfaces are no way to assess Google vs Office 365

I’m always interested when companies put their technologists forward as the public face of the company’s expertise in different areas. The idea is that the technologist will wow the readership with deep insights into technology that causes the readers to instantly make contact with the company to request their services/product/help/whatever’s for sale.

The problem with this approach is that the technologist, possibly chosen at random from the ranks of the unwilling writers lurking on the company’s technical staff, might not be up to the task. The views expressed by such an author might be badly researched, off the planet, or simply wrong. It strikes me that the technical leadership inside companies need to do a better job of reviewing what is published on behalf of the company, something that apparently does not happen often.

And so we come to a post on the “Cloud Sherpas” site entitled “Google vs. Microsoft: Which Platform is the Real Change? Part II” by Derik Vanleet, whom we are informed “has a deep technical knowledge of Active Directory, Windows, Exchange, Business Development, Identity Management, Partner Development, Google Apps and Google Enterprise.” It’s a topic that many people will find interesting, especially if written by an expert.

Unfortunately, despite his stated credentials, I fear that Derik misses a number of important points. The central argument that he wants to advance is that Google is easier for users because only two interfaces for each of the four applications (email, file, chat, and social) that he compares against Office 365. By comparison, he calculates that Microsoft makes 26 interfaces available. He therefore concludes that Google is easier to learn. This might well be true. It might also equally be true that the Google apps are less functional. And it might also be true that all of this doesn’t matter because companies make their technology choices for different reasons.

Take email for instance. I guess because we’re taking about user interfaces, the comparison is between Gmail and Outlook rather than Gmail and Exchange. It’s difficult to separate Outlook and Exchange because the two products are so interconnected but it’s valid to do so because Outlook is the way that users think about email. Outlook Web App (not Outlook Web Access – last seen in Exchange 2007 – as shown in the diagram) and mobile clients are also included in the mix.

Although it’s true that Gmail is a simpler and easier to use interface (if all you want to do is send a message), an important fact that is totally overlooked is that there is a very large number of people in the world that have grown up using applications like Outlook to organize their business life. Outlook has been around since 1997 and is a very successful email and PIM. It’s had its difficulties in the past and has been compared to a fat pig of an application, but you can’t argue with success.

The harsh reality of commercial life is that Microsoft has to accommodate its installed base. If they didn’t, they would have zero prospect of success competing against Google for cloud based services. That’s the reason why Microsoft supports Outlook 2007, Outlook 2010 and Outlook 2013 with Office 365. My guess is that Microsoft would love to drop support for Outlook 2007 at this point to reduce their support costs, but that’s impossible when you have such a large installed base. On the other hand, Google started off with a clean slate when they designed Gmail and Google Apps. It’s also true that Google has never supported a traditional desktop client so comparing Outlook and the browser-based Gmail client is a stretch. Although a source of much cost, having a desktop client allows companies to dictate the software that they use and it permits them to install add-on software like CRM modules to meet their business needs. So having fewer user interfaces is a good thing in some respects while being inflexible in others.

Consumers of cloud-based services that use browser interfaces don’t get to vote about updates to user interfaces. Changes are slipstreamed by vendors all the time. You can argue that Google has constantly fiddled with its user interfaces over the years. Gmail remained in beta for a very long time and during that period features appeared and disappeared without warning. Gmail and Apps seem to have settled down now into relative stability but I bet that Google would be much more successful selling Gmail to large enterprises if they had a reasonable integration with Outlook. The existing IMAP or POP integrations are slow and unsatisfactory. Zimbra showed what could be done to connect Outlook to a non-Microsoft Linux-based email server. Google could do the same.

While I’m commenting on email, I note the assertion (in the diagram) that there is no Outlook for Mobile app. Well, Outlook Mobile works pretty well on my Nokia Lumia 1020 and Microsoft released the Outlook Web App for Devices app last July. That app is currently only supported for Apple iOS devices but I expect an announcement around Android support at the Microsoft Exchange Conference next week. To be fair to Dirk, he acknowledges the existence of Outlook Mobile (for the 3.3% who use Windows Phone) and OWA for Devices in the text, so it’s odd that these errors exist in the diagram.

The diagram also lumps Yammer into email, something I cannot understand. I imagine that this is simply a reaction to some Microsoft propaganda (otherwise called enthusiasm) as they seek to find the best use for Yammer. This is just a fact of life as products are integrated with other technology (the same comment could be made about Skype and Lync), but I think that lumping Yammer into email just clouds the comparison for now. Yes, it’s true that Yammer came with an email component and it’s also true that that email component is not well integrated at this point. A more accurate and useful comparison can be made when Yammer is eventually fully integrated with Office 365.

If we take Yammer off the table (only temporarily), then file, chat, and social are shootouts between the Microsoft and Google applications. Social is the hardest area to call. I don’t think Yammer is the answer now, but neither is SharePoint or Google+. IMHO, both companies are struggling to find software that really works in a consistent way for multiple user communities in different industries, countries, and cultures. As Facebook has proven, social networking works outside businesses. The ability of enterprise social networking to help companies achieve better, measurable, and cost-effective business results is still unproven (at least in my mind).

I think the article would be more valuable if it provided a balanced assessment of the state of play between Google and Microsoft (like the comparison published in InfoWorld in January 2014). For instance, Gmail is a good mail server, albeit one that lacks a great client. It’s true that lots of people use it (the first part of the series cites 425 million; what it doesn’t say is how many of these people are – like me – users of the free service. Nor does it factor in the disposable email accounts commonly found in services like Gmail and Hotmail that are set up, used briefly, and then discarded.

A better comparison would be to look at the number of people who pay for Exchange Online (Office 365) and Exchange on-premises versus purchased Gmail. Last November, I calculated that Exchange Online represented about 3.32% of the 301 million seats that Radicati Group reported for Exchange. That was a lowball number and it could be higher. In either case, I hazard a guess that the number of paying customers for Exchange is substantially higher to that for Gmail. I have certainly not paid them a red cent over the years for the privilege of analyzing my email.

Comparing Gmail to Exchange is difficult because Gmail is single platform whereas Exchange allows customers to deploy on-premises, a hybrid solution, or as the pure cloud-based Exchange Online service.

My major focus is email and I am loathe to get into detailed discussions outside that. I think that Google Apps offers some nice functionality that I have used from time to time. However, many prefer the Office equivalents because they have been around for ever, document compatibility is not flawless, and humans find it difficult to change. I imagine that the rumours of Office for iPad will give some additional momentum to the Word-Excel-PowerPoint trio too. Google Drive and OneDrive seem to be much of a muchness. I use OneDrive more because it is better integrated into Windows 8. I don’t use Google Hangouts but do use Lync, but only because I keep on receiving calendar invitations to meetings that use Lync. I do use Google+, but only to publish notices of blog posts that I have written.

In short, you can focus on the number of user interfaces and options if you like but I query the real usefulness of the comparison. At the end of the day, the real question is whether an application solves a business problem in an efficient and effective manner at reasonable cost. As described in this interesting article about why one company moved from Google Apps to Office 365, “it is a battle of the ecosystems” and users often prefer what they know and understand (Office) rather than the great unknown (Google). People are part of that business problem that IT has to solve, so allowing people to continue using software that they have become accustomed to over years is an important factor to consider.

What the article does prove is that Microsoft doesn’t do itself any favors when it goes to market with a confusing collection of different and overlapping products. Yammer versus SharePoint; OneDrive Personal (which isn’t associated with Office 365 at all) and OneDrive Business; Skype and Lync; Yammer Mail and Exchange. You can argue that this smorgasbord of products will be simplified as acquired technology is absorbed into Office. One would hope that this is true. For now it’s confusing and unhelpful, even without comparisons like the one discussed here.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna


About Tony Redmond

Lead author for the Office 365 for IT Pros eBook and writer about all aspects of the Office 365 ecosystem.
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10 Responses to User interfaces are no way to assess Google vs Office 365

  1. Tony,
    Thank you for the rebuttal post; as one that sold Microsoft products for years, I always like to see reactions when people “poke the bear”. Keep in mind, my posts on this topic center around the idea that Microsoft pushes the fact that Office 365 are “familiar” to users and “the same products they’ve been using for years”, when in fact, they are not. They also claim that Google is a much bigger change, when in fact, it may not be as big of a change as people think it is. This was not a discussion about “who has the most features”, Microsoft clearly has more bells and whistles, but that doesn’t matter if people don’t know where to find them, or how to use them.
    Your observation on the Outlook clients is correct; we updated the graphic a week ago to state “No Outlook for Android”, but the incorrect graphic was used and will be updated.
    You cannot argue, and to an extent you do not, that Office 365 has redundant solutions for Email, Chat and file storage, but in true Microsoft fashion, talk about “future integrations”. We all know it will happen, but it took Microsoft a year just to get SSO between Office 365 and Yammer and that is shaky at best.
    At the end of the day, this was not intended to be a “pick Google because it has less client interfaces”, it was “if you think you do not need to train your users, on either platform, then buyer beware”. I 100% agree with your point “At the end of the day, the real question is whether an application solves a business problem in an efficient and effective manner at reasonable cost.” And that is the point we drive with our customers; “why business problem are you trying to solve?” and then pick which platform is best for you. Thank you…Derik VanVleet – Cloud Sherpas

    • Hi Dirk,

      Thanks for replying. I think there is a lot of truth in what Microsoft says when they state that the same products are used when companies move to Office 365. I use Outlook with Office 365 in exactly the same way as I do with on-premises Exchange. About the only difference I notice is that online access to an archive mailbox is slower than it would be if the mailbox was on-premises. Outlook masks the networking differences behind the scenes so that cloud seems to be the same as on-premises. I imagine that MAPI over HTTP will make the interaction better, once the inevitable bugs are ironed out, simply because it’s a more web-like protocol. I also use SharePoint Online and Lync in the same way as I would use them on-premises. So from a single perspective (mine), things are pretty well identical. Now, if I was using some special add-on that couldn’t be installed in Office 365 but can be used on-premises, I might have a different story, especially if the add-on was business critical. As to moving to Google, I hold to my point that Google’s lack of Outlook support holds them back. The transition from Outlook to Outlook Web App is hard enough for some customers. The transition from Outlook to Gmail is horrendous, even if that UI is getting a little better (the early Gmail interface was terrible).

      Discussion is good. Just make sure that the facts are there to support a contention. I don’t think you quite hit the mark this time.


      • Tony,
        “used the same”…maybe, but same interface as 2007 or 2010, Nope. That is the point. Change an interface, have to train the users, i.e “the ribbon”. Move a menu option, users are lost. That is the point, and I’m 100% on the mark there.
        If you expect users to do the same things, the same way, over and over; how is your company going to evolve? That is a different question/topic for a different time.

      • No, you can stay using Outlook 2007 or Outlook 2010 (your choice) and the same interface remains. If you decide to upgrade to a new release, then you take on the consequences of dealing with that decision, like the ribbon.

        Gmail has dabbled with the UI for years and the UI does not seem to remain constant for more than a few months at a time. What’s different with that approach (where the service provider has all of the power to dictate what users see and access)?

        Naturally, if people stay in a time warp progress will pass them by. But that’s no justification to rush into new technology just because it’s new. If that were the case then we’ll all be using Yammer… As long as technology does the job, it can stay… Even Windows XP (if support continued). Actually, the lack of support soon for Office 2003, Exchange 2003, and Windows XP is a really big flexion point for many. But that technology has been around for over a decade and lots has changed since, so adequate reason exists to support a business justification to change to either new on-premises software or to embrace the cloud. But that’s not to say that a company using these products has not innovated or evolved in the last decade – they might well have, but in different ways than the simple assessment of “what technology do you use” that technologists find so easy to embrace.


      • Of course you can use 2007 (with some limitations) and 2010, but I think the idea of “tinkering with the interface” is very quickly becoming an apples-to-apples as Microsoft is moving to Google’s model of incremental, quarterly changes and updates. I tend to feel that making a tweak here and there is better than a complete interface redesign every 3 years. Does Google overhaul an interface? They’ve been known to do that, sure. Microsoft, for years, has been trying to get OWA closer and closer to the Outlook client. Why? Because users have asked for it; users are more mobile now than they were 14 years ago and demand a different way to interact with information.
        If you paint a scenario where a user chooses to keep using Outlook 2010, then they are vacation or something and do not have their primary computer and they log into OWA, the user will say “whoa! that is different”. Will they “figure it out”? Sure, but is it better to train the users ahead of time? Yes. That is what I’m trying to say.
        And uh, for the record; I’m not a “random technologist”, as you infer. I was a Solutions Engineer selling Microsoft products for a long time before switching platforms 2 years ago.

      • I think the most recent change in OWA was compelled by the need to support other form factors than the PC. OWA 2010 is actually more powerful and functional than OWA 2013 is but the 2013 version is much better at coping with tablets and smartphones. That’s a good reason to change – the need to adopt the “Metro” interface was not so good.

        I think most users who are familiar with Outlook can cope with OWA. The design language is largely similar and the mailbox layout is the same. It’s not quite the same as the cold water to hot water transition that Outlook to Gmail is.

        I didn’t say you were a random technologist. I made the point that companies often select people at random from within their ranks to fill blog posts. It happens. And anyway, all of us are random technologists. I certainly am (as my wife tells me frequently).

  2. SAT says:

    I’m confused about what the point is that Derek vanFleet is trying to make. How can you compare functionality within Gmail compared to an Exchange/O365/Outlook configuration. (I’m concentrating on the client aspect here because in reality that’s the only thing people care about; not enterprise social/file storage or anything else.

    I have not yet heard of…or personally met…any user who was very happy with being migrated to Google Apps away from Outlook/Exchange – i’ve been exposed to 4 migrations in the last 18 months either directly or at first-hand via my consulting cohorts. All due to the desktop user experience, which suffers due to a loss of productivity. I’m not talking about the average Joe who doesn’t do anything but read the odd email. I’m talking about PAs and Secretaries dealing with multiple calendars/delegates/agendas etc and has built a deep relationship with and customized his/her Outlook client’s setup. The fact is Outlook is a tool which has evolved to suit the needs of power users for over a decade. We would all like to shoot Outlook from time to time – but in terms of a shoot-out between Gmail and Outlook there can be no contest – productivity is impacted due to a lack of features and customization at a basic level. It makes people frustrated. They remain frustrated within Google Apps, I have not seen them ‘coming to terms’ or having an enjoyable adoption over time.

    That’s my personal experience as someone who’s been migrating mailboxes for 10 years on-prem and now into the cloud. Unfortunately IT Managers – many often with basic technical backgrounds – are sold a story from the Cloud Sales chap, the result of which is a migration into the cloud being made on cost instead of sound technical and business research and knowledge.

    Articles such as the one from Derik vanFleet need to be clearer in their technical comparisons. The structure of the argument is flawed.

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