Cloud warfare – Office 365 Education vs Google Apps for Education

Now it’s time for a topic I’ve been meaning to cover for a while now – but never quite got around to!

Many Schools are considering moving to, or are re-evaluating their position when it comes to Cloud Services. Some may have adopted something a year or so back, and are looking again at how they are using it; while others are looking at their aging on premise equipment wondering how they will replace it with shrinking budgets.

Of course, the “cost savings” of using cloud services have been published to death…but how much of a saving can you really make – if it is an area you haven’t looked at before and have no skills in that area. Suddenly, the decision isn’t as simple – as you will need to consider paying for the services of a company to “move you” to the cloud, or at least provide training and support.

If we put all of that to one side for the moment, this first post is just going to deal with the two key players you have – in the Microsoft corner “Office 365”, and in the Google corner “Apps for Education” (GAFE).” This argument has been going on for some time, and there are some very vocal loyal followers of each out there. A gentle sweep of twitter, or your search engine of choice will show a wide variety of views points, opinions and preferences. One of my personal favourite examples of this type of brand loyalty has to be tablets. love it when a new iPhone, iPad or Android tablet comes out. Social media – actually, the media in general – turns into “quote central”. “Is X the killer of Y?” or “Z has what everyone has been waiting for”.

I’m not a fan of this personally, since all these articles tend to do is reel off a feature list, which is all well and good – but what would you actually use the features for. This list is then analysed and compared between the products – but does all this really matter?

If you have an iPhone, an iPad, an Android tablet or whatever else, why do you have it? Why did you choose that device over anything else you had the option to purchase?

The Platforms…in focus

You chose the device you have because of the platform on which that device runs. I asked several fellow professionals (and even myself) “why do you have an iPad?” and most said “because I use iTunes/iPhoto” or something similar. My own reason was “I wanted to see what the fuss was about. They made a device choice based on the platform they prefer. All of these comparisons of a Surface versus a Macbook versus an iPad versus an Android tablet have it all wrong: the device is not the choice people are making, it’s the platform they are choosing. It will also generally rely on whether they have already bought into a system or feature dependency already. Imagine the pain of changing everything over – choosing between Office 365 and Google is no different in this respect.

Essentially – I think a lot of people fail to realise that the decision they are ultimately making is a platform decision, not a feature decision. The fact of the matter is, both products have very similar features, but many are also different: Microsoft has features that Google does not have and Google has many features that Microsoft does not have. Yes, the products within these platforms have specific features that may be important, but if the platform doesn’t meet your needs, then it doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles the products have.

All that being said – guess what I’m now going to do? Yes – I’m going to give you the features! However, this is purely informational; factual if you like. Im not going to do a X vs Y, well not in the traditional sense. Im going to give you the use case – and what feature in the company offering provides that feature.

Use Case Google Apps for Education Microsoft Office 365
Browser Chrome Internet Explorer / Edge
Word processing Docs Word
Spreadsheets Sheets Excel
Presentations Slides Powerpoint / Sway
Email Gmail Exchange / Outlook
Pages Sites Office 365 Sites / SharePoint
Drive storage Drive OneDrive
Instant messaging Talk Lync / Skype / Yammer
Video conferencing Hangouts Lync / Skype
Social networks Google+ / Groups Yammer
Notes Keep OneNote
Native search engines Google search Bing / Fast Search
Service status dashboards App status dashboard Office 365 service health dashboard, including Mobile App based management

The astute amongst you will have noticed Ive missed out “Assignment/Education” from the above. The truth is on this one is that directly, Microsoft don’t truly have anything in its own right. It was more complicated than just a Use Case and feature here. For Google, it is simple – they have Google Classroom. However, this is really a skin over the groups capability combined with Drive and Sites. It also doesn’t have any automation with it.

Microsoft have OneNote Class Notebook creator; which allows teachers to provision OneNote “workbooks” for your students, based on a class list you provide it. Furthermore, there are the recently announced SDS (School Data Sync) – which is slated to allow syncing of pupil data from a School Management system to Office 365. They also have a Class tool in development. 3rd Parties and partners; such as Teacher Dashboard, LP+ and my own workplace SalamanderSoft also provide cost options for integrating into the Sharepoint environment and making it into a Learning Management System. For completeness, there are also 3rd Parties and partners who are integrating and automating into Google Classroom and automating it. This isnt a sales pitch, but SalamanderSoft can also do this, as can Hapera.

The bigger picture…

From the table, you can see that as expected – in terms of covering the use cases is concerned – there is relative parity. Yes, each may have approached from a different standpoint, but the end result is very similar. There are a number of platform differences however, and most of these affect those supporting it rather than those using it.

You may be surprised when I raise the first of these – which is the supported operating systems. Largely, this has become less relevant – as the platforms continue to evolve. At one point, Google could claim it offered the best support for user experience, as it could offer the applications across both Windows and Mac as a browser-based solution. Then, Microsoft launched Office 365, and included early versions of the Office Web Apps – which at that point was limited to Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Since then, this has grown to include much more fully featured version; and new solutions such as Sway, Delve and OneNote Online. The issue was then the difference in support in the browser chosen; and also the local installable versions of the software. Until recently, Mac versions were significantly behind – the last release being 2011. Windows had 2010, 2013 and now in 2016 – there has finally been the dual release. Now, it is Google in the back seat, as it simply does not provide offline application support, as everything runs in the browser.

When it comes to information and user architecture – Microsoft clearly has an edge with its lengthy tenure as an enterprise environment. Many corporates, and Schools use Active Directory for identity and permission management though groups. To enable cost savings on local hardware, 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, DirSync was born. This allowed administrators to extend their users and groups to Office 365. This has since gone through many revisions – and now includes password sync in Azure AD Sync – or you can go even further an implement ADFS for true single sign on. This provides a hybrid Active Directory approach where directory services can still be managed on-premise while moving to the cloud for application functionality.

Google, meanwhile, has never experienced life as a traditional IT infrastructure layer within enterprise, and launched their productivity platform from the original search services stack – starting with mail and calendaring. Now, they also provide a sync tool – Google Active Directory Sync. This is more primative than its Microsoft counterpart – not surprising as it is younger; but it does continue to develop. More is configurable via the API.

One of my favorite features of the Office platform is SharePoint. SharePoint permits a lot of flexibility in structuring an organization’s data to meet the specific needs at a department, or even specific function level. 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. This technology is demonstrated by SalamanderSoft with their Sharepoint Integration product for Education. It allows curriculum documents to be tagged according to the subject, topic and strand. When Office 365 launched, it was not surprising that this technology was implemented into it. 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. Managed metadata services are among the least-known, but most powerful aspects of the entire Microsoft platform.

To many readers, it may look as though Im advocating Microsoft over Google – but in the last area Im going to discuss – there is no doubt that Microsoft have been beaten in it. Google are far superior when it comes to mobile – being the originator of the Android mobile operating system, they have control 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. There is native access to the Google productivity applications – although 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. The release of the Surface; and supreme deals for education on such devices are changing the game here – and Google won’t have this upper hand for long. Very functional Windows devices are flooding the market – for example, you can now get a Linx Windows Tablet, with Mobile Office for under £70 – equivalent to a Kindle Fire etc.

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. Sadly, Microsoft has abandoned InfoPath as an Office form builder platform citing not being mobile-responsive or mobile friendly. No functional replacement for InfoPath has been announced, though there are many “noises-off” around this. For the moment, a SharePoint designer can knock up some basic forms for SharePoint lists.

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

So, if you are already using some services from one of the providers – why go through the pain of change if you don’t have to?

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.

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