Many schools have started considering adding a cloud productivity application suite for staff and students to use. The top two providers for cloud-based productivity tools are Google and Microsoft.
Invariably the question that surfaces is, “Which platform is better?” The Google Apps for Education vs Microsoft Office 365 debate rages on.
That’s an incredibly complex question with potentially hundreds of comparison points, and a lot of subjective biases depending upon who you ask. You, in fact, may notice an editorial bias on the part of this reporter toward the MS side of the ledger, but I promise to do my best in presenting a fair and balanced report on the comparison.
Features for productivity, communication, and collaboration
When evaluating Google Apps For Education (also referred to as GAE) vs Microsoft Office 365 for education, I find a very similar feature set at the end-user level for productivity, communication, and collaboration. In fact, when looking at the following chart, you can see many similarities down the line with each of the primary features.
|Feature||Google Apps for Edu||Microsoft Office 365|
|Browser||Chrome||Internet Explorer / Edge|
|Presentations||Slides||Powerpoint / Sway|
|Gmail||Exchange / Outlook|
|Pages||Sites||Office 365 Sites / SharePoint|
|Instant messaging||Talk||Lync / Skype / Yammer|
|Video conferencing||Hangouts||Lync / Skype|
|Social networks||Google+ / Groups||Yammer / So.cl|
|Native search engines||Google search||Bing / Fast Search|
|Service status dashboards||App status dashboard||Office 365 service health dashboard|
8 key differences between Google Apps for Education and Office 365
Getting past the end-user productivity level, a lot of the key differences have more impact on the organization and your school’s IT team itself. I am going to focus on some of these key differences:
1. Mac vs. Windows Operating System
At one point, Google could claim it was better in this category because it could offer the applications across both operating systems as a browser-based solution. This was an important distinction with so many Macs being used inside of school environments. Google was able to offer very consistent features as a browser-based platform.
When Microsoft launched Office 365, they added seamless, browser-based application compatibility that worked well on Mac. But the downloadable local installable versions of the software weren’t current between Mac and Windows.
Only recently has Microsoft launched Office 2016 with native versions for local Mac installation. Up until now, Mac users were relegated to Office 2011 versions.
Now the discrepancy between versions of Office applications has been resolved between Mac and Windows, which opens up the real competitive discussion: offline use of productivity apps.
With locally installed versions of the productivity software, a user is able to work with local Microsoft tools – even without having internet access.
Google simply does not provide offline application support, as everything runs in the browser.
2. Directory services
Microsoft clearly has an edge with its lengthy tenure as an enterprise environment. This starts with Active Directory and directory services for identity and permission management at a very granular policy level.
Many schools are considering productivity in the cloud as a migration from existing on-premises legacy IT stack. When Microsoft launched Office 365 as a cloud environment, the company anticipated the issues with legacy AD environments. They provide a hybrid Active Directory approach where directory services can still be managed on-prem while moving to the cloud for application functionality.
Google, of course, has never experienced life as a traditional IT infrastructure layer within enterprise, and launched as a cloud service outgrowth from the original search services stack.
3. Information architecture
When Office 365 launched, Microsoft incorporated SharePoint as a core information management framework. SharePoint permits a lot of flexibility in structuring an organization’s information architecture to meet the specific needs at a department, or even specific function level.
While Google indeed has a strong search capability combined with rudimentary Google Drive storage for document storage and support, Microsoft’s legacy enterprise IT expertise brings an interesting edge.
Microsoft’s advanced usage of managed metadata services permits organizations to design their information architecture at the very top by creating organization-specific taxonomies, which can then be further applied to everything from site tree navigation to document tagging and indexing.
Managed metadata services are among the least-known, but most powerful aspects of the entire Microsoft platform.
4. Workflow automation
Because of this SharePoint foundation, Microsoft opens up ad hoc database development, data connectivity services, and in particular, workflow automation capabilities for customization.
Designing a SharePoint list that connects with different aspects of information management creates a powerful platform for advanced users without requiring a lot of heavy lifting from deep software development engineers.
Power users are able to take control of their document flow, approvals, and integrations into other applications. Approvals, case-based routing, and other deep operational workflow automations are the result of Microsoft being a true business process automation development platform.
5. Cloud hosting / application services
Additionally, the direct interface between Office 365 and Microsoft’s Azure cloud hosting framework provides a platform for unlimited scalability and application integration as a native technology stack. Whereas Google has yet to launch cloud host services in the same vein as Microsoft or Amazon AWS.
With Google, you’re fairly limited to what you see is what you get, and any customization will require a software engineer with cloud API connectivity experience and a third-party host environment upon which to run the application itself.
6. Mobile access
As much as I have been chanting my own belief in Microsoft’s superiority as an enterprise IT platform in this article, there’s an area where they have clearly been bested by Google.
Google kicked Microsoft’s back side when it came to mobile. Google clearly has a native advantage being the originator of the Android mobile operating system, controlling not only the operating system itself, but largely influencing the application development ecosystem through the Google Play Store.
Third-party developers can still write and release apps independently on Android, skipping the Play Store itself – but that’s considered risky from an IT governance perspective, and also requires special non-default security settings at the individual device level to be able to install an app from sources outside Play Store.
Microsoft has recently released very functional renditions of its productivity applications that integrate well into the Office 365 environment.
In theory, this also gives Google a bit of an edge when considering tablet devices for classroom use. Android tablets and Chromebooks work well natively access Google Apps whereas any Microsoft Apps would require downloading and deployment to the device. Anything requiring extra effort on the part of already burdened school IT teams is going to get more scrutiny.
Another area where Google may have an advantage is an ad hoc form builder with Forms.
Forms are a great tool for schools to use in gathering and sharing information. From in-class applications like creating cheat-proof quizzes, to results or student elections or parent surveys, forms have far-reaching uses in and around the school.
Here’s a slide presentation on using Google Forms in the classroom. On the other hand, some say Google Forms are also fairly limited in what you can do with the data, as well as the security options associated with the form.
Microsoft has abandoned InfoPath as an Office form builder platform. The issue was InfoPath not being mobile-responsive or mobile friendly. Microsoft hasn’t yet announced any functional replacement for InfoPath, and Google Forms are still fairly basic, only allowing a narrow set of data types and form layout features.
The developer partner community has been pushing Microsoft for a new form tool, and I would suspect there’s a good one in the works.
8. Education-specific third-party extensions
Another comparison is the way each platform can be tailored to meet the use cases of education-specific customization through third-party extensions of the native platform. These extensions are usually offered by a third-party development partner of each platform.
Here are a couple of examples of third-party extensions to the native platforms:
Google Classroom / Hapera
Google offers Google Classroom as a native feature to the Google Apps for Education suite. It has features like collaboration, assignment tracking, and many more features useful to teachers within the classroom environment.
A specific customization for the Google Classroom environment is a third-party extension from Hapera. Hapera further extends Google Classroom to add a teaching rubric wrapper and management system for other 3rd-party resources as exercises and assignments within the Google Classroom environment
Teacher Dashboard for Office 365
Microsoft has a rich tradition of building and maintaining a third-party partner ecosystem of developers around vertical market-specific applications of the native platforms. One such partner is Axis, who offers a fairly robust extension to Office 365 called Teacher Dashboard.
Teacher Dashboard provides its own suite of robust collaboration offerings designed specifically for teachers to use in classrooms. It also provides direct connectivity to many SIS systems, which could be valuable to school IT teams.
Weighing more than just the features
Determining which cloud productivity application to deploy for your school is very complex, and based on many factors. The decision of Google vs Microsoft will likely come down to a few key issues:
- A school’s existing approach to user account management and identity services within the IT network.
- Existing email infrastructure and services
- Existing document management methodologies
- User adoption and skill level in using Microsoft productivity applications versus Google productivity applications
- School administration / IT team skills, resources, and philosophy towards IT and automation in general
As you can see, there are a lot of different points to consider when evaluating whether to use Google Apps for Education or Microsoft Office 365. These can be complex areas of discussion, and extend far beyond the surface level of just which apps have which features. Check out this archived video on whether Google Apps is Good Fit for Your School.
Do you have anything to add or take into consideration when comparing Google Apps for Education vs Microsoft 365 for Education for cloud productivity platforms for schools?