Google Docs vs Microsoft Office - how do they compare?

Preston Gralla weighs up the pros and cons of both suites

For years, Microsoft had no competition when it came to productivity suites. The vast majority of people and enterprises didn't have to give suites any thought at all. They just chose Microsoft Office.

With more businesses getting used to the idea of their apps and data living in the cloud, though, that's starting to change. Oh, Office is still dominant. But the Google Docs web-based office suite is starting to gain traction, and not just among small businesses, but where the big boys and girls roam as well.

Google claims in its official blog that more than 1.75 million businesses, schools and other organisations, including Motorola, now use Google Docs. The company also says 3000 organisations sign up for Google Docs every day.

In the education world, the company says Google Docs has made significant inroads. It claims that more than five million students at thousands of universities in more than 145 countries are now using Google Docs, a 400 percent increase over last year.

As a way to drive home the point that Google Docs is ready for the enterprise, Google is renting billboard space in Boston, Chicago, New York and San Francisco to explain why enterprises should use the suite.

Microsoft isn't sitting still, of course. The next version of Office, Microsoft Office 2010, will include web-based access to popular applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, as a way to compete with Google Docs. Those web-based versions, though, are not likely to be as robust as Google Apps. Google, for its part, has extended Google Docs to the desktop, adding some client features. And that, in turn, is not as robust as the client version of Microsoft Office.

But over the next several years, you can expect Google Docs and Microsoft Office to resemble each other more and more. Microsoft Office will gain cloud-based storage and other web-based features, while Google Docs will include more powerful client-based components. Still, it's likely that Microsoft Office will for the foreseeable future be primarily client-based, and Google Docs primarily web-based.

Where does that leave small businesses, medium-size businesses and large enterprises? Which should they use – Google Docs or Microsoft Office? Ultimately, it will come down to trust and that's not just trust in a particular company, but trust in the company's particular technology approach, be it cloud or client-based.

The worldwide outage of Gmail for 100 minutes earlier this month should give pause to those considering moving full time to Google Docs. As I wrote in my blog, the Gmail outage had Microsoft laughing all the way to the bank.

Imagine if you ran a company and that outage brought down all of the word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software in your business. That could be disastrous.

For now, at least, client-based suites are more trustworthy than web-based ones. In addition, Microsoft has years of experience deploying and supporting Office, including automated deployment and management tools. Those are two good reasons to go with Microsoft.

Of course, the decision also depends on price, and on a company's size and requirements. If I were starting a small business today, for example, I would go with Google Docs. Not only is licensing less expensive than it is with Microsoft Office, but with Google Docs you can operate a business without an infrastructure, or even an IT staff. All you need is web access. So the cost savings go well beyond licensing fees and would overshadow occasional outages.

Large enterprises, with their large investments in infrastructure, technology, expertise and staff, will still want to go with the tried-and-true. That's today, though. If the cloud becomes more reliable and Google develops enterprise-level support, the decision could become much tougher.