iCloud vs Google Apps vs Office 365: a review

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<!–:st–>iCloud the best for editing on the move but falls down on sharing. <!–st:–>

Small businesses and sole professionals using Apple computers now have another option for working in the cloud – Apple iCloud, which launched today. iCloud replaces MobileMe which, despite its shortcomings, found a niche in the small-office home-office (SOHO) market. So does iCloud improve on MobileMe? And how well does iCloud stack up in a business context against Google Apps and Microsoft’s recently debuted Office 365?

The two most important aspects of cloud computing for small businesses are mobility (reading and editing documents on mobile devices) and collaboration (sharing and co-editing documents). And there’s the constant factor of feature set – a new cloud computing service won’t displace a desktop program if it can’t do what the business needs it to do.

Apple has historically focused on the meeting the needs of consumers rather than business and iCloud is no different. Let’s see how it performs on these three criteria for the trio of productivity applications at the heart of any office-based business; the word processor, the spreadsheet and the presentation maker.

 

Office applications – Mobility

The ability to read and edit documents from any location is a godsend to small business. All three vendors are roughly on a par when it comes to accessing documents from desktop PCs or laptops. However, Apple provides by far the best experience for editing and reading documents on mobile devices.

Apple iWork (Pages, Numbers and Keynote) has been totally redesigned for the iPad and it works very well. It won’t replace Microsoft Office – nothing comes anywhere near Excel – but Microsoft hasn’t done a great job of bringing Office to tablets.

Apple has added dictation to its latest operating system for the iPhone 4S so you can write a document without the keyboard, a sensational development. The quality of the dictation is reportedly far better than third-party programs on other platforms.

By comparison, Google and Microsoft have struggled to develop a close connection between their software platforms and compatible devices. Witness last week’s update to the Google Apps app for Android, Google’s own operating system, which was panned for its inability to edit presentations and poor editing of spreadsheets.

Google Apps users can edit documents on Apple iPads and iPhones, however the mobile interface is clunky, particularly with spreadsheets.

It’s still early days for Microsoft and Windows Phone 7 operating system and the Mango upgrade sounds promising. However, it is extremely difficult to edit documents stored in Office 365 on Android and Apple tablets and smartphones which together represent large majorities of the tablet and smartphone markets.

Apple’s strength in devices also shows up its weakness – cloud-based software. You can’t create or edit documents in iCloud within a browser even if you are using an Apple device. The only things you can do is insert comments within the document or leave notes which look like a document-specific chat session.

However, the notes are not downloaded with the document; you have to log into iCloud.com in your browser to see them. And, astonishingly, viewers can’t see or add notes if they’re looking at the document in iCloud.com on an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch.

So here’s one major caveat: Apple requires a user to have iWork installed to edit documents but it doesn’t make iWorks for Windows, Android or any other platform. You’re locked into Apple devices and you need to buy iWork for each one.

And another caveat: iWork documents stored in iCloud are effectively downloaded to the local device for editing and viewing and the changes synced back to iCloud, not in real-time. No editing in the cloud has implications for collaboration – read on.

Verdict: Apple is a winner for editing documents on the Apple iPad and iPhone but has no ability to edit in the browser, as Google and, to a limited extent, Microsoft do. Google gets a commendation for being able to edit Google Apps documents on Windows, Apple and Android mobile platforms.

 

Next page: Collaboration and feature set


Office applications – Collaboration

Sharing information is so much easier in the cloud. Google Apps’ success has been due in part to its introduction of multi-user editing. Several employees can open up a document, spreadsheet or presentation and start adding slides, changing numbers simultaneously, and any approved user can jump in to watch progress or add comments.

Google Apps also brought to the world auto-saving and version history by timeline, two iCloud features promoted heavily by Apple.

Microsoft has a strong history of collaboration tools for corporations, particularly with SharePoint. Sharing and multi-user editing in Office 365 is clunkier and less slick than in Google Apps, but corporate types will appreciate the familiarity of version control and other document security tools.

But the importance of collaboration has failed to dent Apple’s obsession with consumers as individuals. Co-editing is not possible; in fact, letting other people edit documents stored on iCloud is not allowed full stop. As mentioned previously you can share a link to view a document for others to add comments and notes, but that’s it.

For business users, this is a show-stopper. Even sole traders benefit from sharing a spreadsheet with an accountant or supplier, or getting customer feedback on a document at the same time online.

Verdict: Google is the reigning collaboration champ though Microsoft does enough to keep its corporate hold. Apple isn’t on the playing field.

 

Office applications – Feature set

This review doesn’t have the scope to give a detailed feature comparison of the three suites. Here’s a rough indication of their relative standing.

Apple has arguably the best productivity suite after Microsoft Office (I’m sure several Apple diehards would argue it’s superior) and sits just in front of Google Apps in terms of functionality and well ahead in its ability to produce impressive documents.

iWork’s Pages has some layout capability beyond straight word processing so you can create brochures, flyers and posters; Numbers is also graphically oriented towards producing pretty spreadsheets and falls short of Excel’s power; Keynote has a reputation as an able competitor to PowerPoint.

Suffice to say, where some Microsoft users have reservations about moving to the comparatively feature-light Google Apps, they’re unlikely to lose much functionality moving to Apple iWork.

One caveat: Google Apps may not be pretty but has some excellent features such as internet lookup in Spreadsheet and integration with Google Forms.

Verdict: Apple’s iWork suite is a good-enough replacement for Microsoft Office and well suited to businesses that need to produce impressive-looking documents.

 

Note: Email and calendar are of course essential tools. However, all three suites provide more than enough functionality for small business and are unlikely to be deal-makers.

Next page: Storage, communications and extras


Storage

Cloud productivity suites are filing cabinets in the sky; all sorts of information can be stored in them. Apple iCloud can store music, movies, documents, spreadsheets and presentations, just like Microsoft and Google. However, the interface is a shambles and the document types iCloud stores is so limited as to be useless for business.

Firstly, the interface. The file view on iCloud is divided into three separate tabs; Pages, Numbers and Keynote. This means you can’t see all the files on iCloud in one window which is how every other file management system operates. While you can drag files from your desktop into iCloud, the right tab has to be selected. If you try to drag a Numbers file into the Keynote tab it will tell you it doesn’t support that file.

These are the file types iCloud’s iWork storage area does support; iWork (Pages, Numbers, Keynote), Microsoft Office (.doc, .docx, .xls, .xlsx, .ppt, .pptx), CSV and plain text.

Incredibly, you can’t store PDFs or images. Apple would argue that PDFs belong in the Books section and images in PhotoStream, but it would kill productivity to switch between interfaces to find documents by type.

Documents in iCloud storage can only be duplicated, downloaded or deleted; there is no filtering, tagging or sharing. You can’t even view or edit the documents on a Mac laptop or iMac unless you have sent yourself a link. Apple wants you to download it, edit it and upload it again.

In short, iCloud’s document management – a core function for any business – is totally impractical.

Box.net’s CEO Aaron Levie wrote a great blog post about Apple’s determination to lock customers into a vertical stack of software, device and cloud platform when businesses typically use applications and devices from many vendors.

Verdict: Google and Microsoft can store many different types of documents in their clouds. Apple has simplified document management in the cloud to the point where it only makes sense for consumers.

 

Communications

Voice and video conferencing is another activity which has become more popular among small business. The three vendors have unified applications which are effectively their own versions of Skype – linked to the contacts database, you can make a phone call, video call or send text messages over the internet.

Apple and Microsoft have put a lot of effort into the interface design which makes their applications much more enjoyable. They also have more features than Google Voice, which is only able to do two-way audio calls, chat and video calls.

Microsoft has two key advantages; its program Lync Online is a renamed Microsoft Office Communicator, an enterprise-grade IP telephony platform, which is very powerful. When set up with a server (hosted or on-premise) it can replace an office phone system, or PBX.

The other point is that Microsoft bought Skype and is no doubt busy integrating it with Lync Online, and with it access to 300 million Skypers.

Verdict: Microsoft has a killer product. Apple is probably the easiest to use. Google Voice needs an overhaul.

 

 

The extras

All three cloud suites have a couple of applications outside the core productivity suite. The extra iCloud applications have less relevance for business such as Photo Stream, which syncs photos taken by iPhones and iPads to iCloud and Mac desktops and laptops, and iTunes Music Match, which creates a cloud-based copy of an iTunes music library on a PC or laptop.

Sure, there will be real estate agents that love the ability to take a photo of a new property and display it online for colleagues and customers, but Photo Stream is a niche application compared to the extra apps that come with Google and Microsoft’s cloud suites.

Even at a more basic level, document management – a core function for any business – is not meaningfully included in iCloud compared to Google Docs and Office 365′s SharePoint Online.

 

Summary

Apple is the king of the consumers in the world of IT. But with iCloud it can’t extend its reign to small business let alone enterprise.

Two dealbreakers rule out iCloud (and iWork) for business – poor file management in iCloud and the inability to co-edit with others. Add the lack of guaranteed uptime with a service-level agreement, or SLA, and it’s difficult to see many businesses putting their faith in iCloud.

Apple’s mobile devices have already found uses in corporate boardrooms to jumbo cockpits, but they will be running custom applications and not using iCloud.

Businesses may find some niche features useful – the PhotoStream is the easiest and fastest way to sync photos – but for the daily grind of office production, Google Apps or Microsoft Office 365 are better suited.

About Sholto Macpherson

Sholto Macpherson is a business technology journalist specialising in cloud software. He lives and works in Sydney, Australia.

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