Google Apps Vs. Microsoft Office

Microsoft Outlook is a nearly ubiquitous application. Even just a few years ago, it was a struggle for any organization of more than a few staff members to get by without it. But with the introduction of Google Apps, which is offered free to nonprofits, there’s suddenly a quite viable alternative to the functionality that Outlook offers. Through Google Apps, nonprofits can receive email addresses at their own domain (i.e. and online calendar tools for each of their staff members, as well as a robust way to share documents and much more.

Email Functionality

Outlook mail is tried, true, familiar and expensive. On the other hand, Gmail’s web-based interface is often regarded as superior in terms of ease of use. It offers some useful and substantially different features, such as the ability to see all emails in the same thread grouped together, and the ability to label emails as part of multiple groups, rather than requiring the user to put them into a single folder. For those who rely on searching their inbox, Gmail’s search is faster and often more accurate than Outlook’s. When your Outlook .pst file get’s damaged- everything is damaged. This is a concern because it doesn’t take very long to have the .pst file become huge. Huge files=slow performance

Gmail’s web-based interface is it’s strength. It means that a user can access their email from any internet browser or smartphone.  Occasionally, there may be slowness in displaying or sending emails while Gmail dependent on the pipes involved. You can ‘kick-out’ anything you’re looking at into a separate window allowing for copy+paste from one email to another.

Gmail offers free storage for up to 2 gigabytes of emails per staff member. With Outlook, you need to pay for the space to store these emails on your own server. Gmail also offers free, excellent, spam protection, while you have to set this up as a separate service with Outlook.

Calendar Functionality

Both Outlook and Google Calendar have strong and useful functionality to keep track of your own schedule, with the ability to show time as free or busy and book whole day or recurring meetings. In addition, Google Calendar has nifty natural language recognition when adding events – for instance, typing “John Meeting Tuesday 8AM” will recognize that you want to create a “John Meeting” for the next upcoming Tuesday at 8AM.

The core differences between the two packages lie in their shared calendaring, however. For awhile, Outlook had one of the only reasonable shared calendar in town. They invented the genre, and have over the years refined it into a powerful feature that allows you to easily schedule meetings with colleagues, see others’ availability, and book conference rooms.

Google Calendar isn’t as powerful as Outlook’s shared calendaring, but is a reasonable alternative. In Outlook, you create a meeting, name the staff you would like to invite, and then are shown a display of everyone’s availability. In Google Calendar, on the other hand, each user can choose to share their entire calendar with any other user. Then, at any point, they can toggle a view of all the calendars they have permission to see. This is convenient if you’re working with a small group of other people, but the list of calendars you can see can become long and onerous to deal with if you work with many other people.

Outlook automatically makes all staff calendars available to everyone within the organization. The sharing is not as automatic with Google Calendar, you can share with individuals, everyone in your domain or other Google Calendar users beyond your organization – for instance, with consultants or people at partner organizations – which can’t done with Outlook.

Contact Functionality

One of the nice things about Outlook has always been it’s close integration of it’s address book and email functionalities. Click on a name of a staff member in an email, and you can automatically see their phone number, address, or more. If you use your address book to store all your phone numbers, you can do the same for any contact.

Gmail’s ability to automatically fill in an email address if you type in a contact’s name is much superior to Outlook, which is very handy. If your staff relies on Outlook to maintain and search a detailed library of contacts, Gmail will present a learning curve to be considered before it will replace that functionality for you.

Shared Folder Functionality

Microsoft Outlook’s shared folder functionality has never been compelling as its email and calendar functions. It facilitates a library of uploaded documents, which can be slow to access and often redundant with a file server.

The Google Docs application also offers the ability to access a shared set of documents. The mental model behind the two applications is fairly different, however. While Outlook offers a library, Google Docs provides an index of shared documents that can be, if desired, opened up for easy collaborative editing. If it’s important to allow multiple people to update documents over time, Google Docs provides much smoother functionality to support this. However, documents can only be organized into folders by each individual user, rather than by a central administrator, making it more difficult for users to navigate through a large set of shared documents.

Remote and Mobile Access

Google Apps has a strong inherent advantage for people working outside your office: because it’s entirely web-based, it can be viewed from any browser. Outlook offers components to support web-based email, but they need to be separately setup and maintained, and are not as smooth for end users. If you have any smartphone, Google has an app or two for you.

Both Google Apps and Outlook support remote devices, such as Blackberries, Treos, and mobile phone browsers, though both are subject to blips and hassles in getting them set up.

Setup and Support

Outlook has a strong network of consultants who support it, and clear-cut methods of getting tech support from Microsoft. However, it’s not cheap to setup and support. Because it’s installed on your own servers, you’re responsible for relatively complex installation and setup, ongoing maintenance and important updates and patches.

Google Apps offers a somewhat less complex setup process, done through web forms. They offer tools to help migrate old emails from other services, including Outlook, as well as, in theory, free migration support for nonprofits. If you’re switching from Outlook to Google Apps, don’t forgot that some of the interface differences are substantial enough that training may be necessary for some staff, and there will likely be some learning curve. For instance, if you click Delete on a message in Outlook, it will delete only that one message, while if you click Delete in Gmail, it will delete the entire thread. These kinds of differences can be subtle and annoying.

As Google Apps is an outsourced service, you don’t need to worry about server maintenance and upgrades. However, your access to the applications is only as good as your internet connection, so remember that you’ll need a strong and reliable internet service provider.

You’ll also need to think through the downsides of any hosted service: do you trust them to effectively store your data? Not to mine it for less-than-appropriate purposes? For instance, the Google Apps license agreement and privacy policy is less than clear on the subject of whether they may distribute the content of your emails or documents to others.  If you need to be HIPAA compliant or you have reason to fear a government subpoena of your data then you’ll need to weight these issues particularly carefully.

There are fewer consultants who specialize in Google Apps, and technical support from Google costs $50/year/user. While they include email and phone service as one of their free benefits for nonprofits, you may end up getting what you pay for in this area.

This gets into one of the greatest unknowns with Google Apps: all of their applications are technically in Beta. Gmail has been in public Beta for more than three years now, with no end in site. What does this mean? Presumably, you use Google Apps at your own risk. The risk has been minimal but existent in the past – there have been some outages of up to a half-day or so, and at the end of 2006 there were isolated reports of the deletion of entire email inboxes. And there’s always the possibility that Google stops supporting their philanthropic program to give away Google Apps to nonprofits.

Because this risk is inherent in a free service, it’s also worth considering Google App’s Premium Edition, which is $50 per year per person. This service offers a 99.9% uptime guarantee, and is likely to provide better support and stability down the road. With Google’s recent acquisition of Postini, the Premium service also provides Postini functionality such as recovery of deleted emails and tools to set more strict rules on viewing and sending of emails.


What does it all mean? Well, Google Apps is a pretty compelling alternative that is certainly worth serious consideration if you’re starting from scratch with your infrastructure, particularly for small organizations. If you’re already using Outlook, the cost of the migration needs to be taken into account, but it’s worth weighing the pros and cons.

There is more risk inherent with Google Apps. It provides strong functionality for much less money than Outlook, but it’s possible that you will encounter problems that are not within your power to solve. If the applications become more unreliable, you may have little recourse other than starting over with another service. It’s possible to create a more bulletproof setup with Outlook, but remember that this will take a sizable investment in expertise, setup, and maintenance. If you’re not investing the proper resources into Outlook, it’s as likely – or more likely – than Outlook will fail you. Regardless of your package, make sure you are backing up your email.

Ultimately, as with any software choice, it comes down to your own analysis of costs and benefits. But regardless, it’s nice to have a new choice in an area where choices have been limited.

For More Information

Contact us and we can give you a complete overview of how Google Apps can improve your organizations workability, collaboration and efficiency.