For years, people looking for free online word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations have turned to Google Docs. However, Microsoft recently released an updated set of Office Web Apps, accessible to individual users from their SkyDrive accounts, and to business users through Office 365 and SharePoint.
The Microsoft apps now support printing, touch-screen tablets, and add some other previously missing features. While overall, Google Apps offers more functionality, the Office Web Apps is starting to show promise, especially for companies committed to the Microsoft ecosystem, since Microsoft's platform makes it simple to open documents in the full, desktop-based Office software.
However, some Office Web Apps seems to be missing key components required for basic usability. The Word Web App, for example, is missing the autosave function and the Excel Web App doesn't allow users to freeze rows.
Just to be clear, Office Web Apps are not the same as Office on Demand, which is a streaming service that offers the full-featured Office software as part of an Office 2013 subscription.
Both the Microsoft and Google platforms allow the upload, import, and editing of existing Office documents, creation of new documents, and saving files in the familiar Office formats. Both offer collaboration tools and mobile access.
Here's a feature-by-feature comparison of the two products.
Price: Mixed bag
Microsoft's Office Web Apps is free for individual users. Businesses can sign up for Office 365 plans, which start at $6 per user per month for up to 50 users, and include online email and shared calendars, in addition to the Office Web Apps. However, the basic plan does not include live support - for that, you'd need to upgrade to the $8 per user per month plan, which also comes with a SharePoint intranet. If your company is already using SharePoint, Web Apps require the purchase of an additional licence.
The basic version of Google Docs used to be free for everyone, including business users, but Google changed its pricing structure in December. It's still free for individual users, and existing business users on the free plan. But new business users will need to pay $50 per user per year, or $120 per user per year with advanced security and e-discovery features.
Storage: Advantage Microsoft
Microsoft's Office Web Apps is located on its SkyDrive platform, which currently comes with 25GB free storage, plus an unlimited amount of storage for the associated Hotmail or Outlook.com email account. Each additional 100GB of storage is $50 per year.
Google Docs is located on the Google Drive platform, which currently comes with 5GB free - in addition to the 10GB for the associated Gmail account and unlimited storage for Google Docs and shared documents. Each additional 100GB is $60 per year.
Both SkyDrive and Google Drive come with desktop software that allows users to automatically synchronise folders.
Sharing: Advantage Google
Both Office Web Apps and Google Docs allow documents to be embedded in webpages, or shared with collaborators.
But, in general, Google offers a more streamlined and complete collaboration experience for online users, with integrated chat panes and real-time updates - every user of a document sees the changes that other users are making, as they are made. In addition, Google Docs allows any document to be emailed right from the application, in a variety of formats, including the standard Office formats, text, and PDF.
Office Web Apps promises better integration with desktop-based Office applications, but the tools are rudimentary, cumbersome, and inconsistent across the apps.
Word processing: Advantage Google
With the Word Web App - as with the other Office Web Apps - there's a preview mode, which is pretty faithful to the original documents.
And then there's the edit mode, which shows a simplified version of the document. If you are working on a Word document that uses features that the Word Web App doesn't support, those features will still be there in the document when you re-open it with the full app. The result can be very confusing, since when you're online you're editing a document that will look different when printed or downloaded.
But the single biggest missing feature of the Word Web App is autosave. This is a must-have for any web-based app, especially if internet connectivity is intermittent.
The word processor in Google Docs has been around the longest, has more formatting tools, and hundreds of fonts. Plus, what you see is what you get - you can save the document in multiple formats, and they'll be pretty faithful to what you've got on the screen.
Spreadsheet: Mixed bag
Like the Word Web App, the Excel Web App has the ever-present "ribbon" interface style.
Unlike the Word Web App, the Excel Web App does save changes automatically, which is great news for folks on iffy internet connections, and for people collaborating online.
Both the Excel Web App and Google Docs' spreadsheet app support the standard spreadsheet functions, including creating charts. Both also have the capability to create web surveys - called forms in Google Docs.
The Excel Web App supports more Excel functions than Google Docs does, so complex spreadsheets may transfer over more easily. However, it does not support macros, does not allow you to freeze header rows, and won't let you email a copy of the spreadsheet as an attachment right from the application.
The Google version supports scripts, freezes rows, and lets users email a copy of the spreadsheet from within the application in Excel, PDF, or CSV format.
The inability to freeze rows and better collaboration gives Google Docs the edge for web-only users, but better integration with Excel gives the Microsoft app the edge for existing Office users.
Presentations: Advantage Microsoft
The PowerPoint Web App offers a choice of nine starting templates, while Google's presentation app offers 20 - but the PowerPoint templates are nicer than Google's.
Both have all the basic editing tools, and ability to share the presentations with the public and embed them into websites.
Note taking: Advantage Microsoft
Microsoft has the OneNote Web App, which, like the other Office Web Apps, is a less-functional version of the original. Most critically, it is still missing a print functionality.
However, it's a big improvement over Google Docs' Notebook app, which was completely shut down about a year ago.
Graphics: Advantage Google
Google Docs has a nice application for collaboratively creating simple graphics and charts online.
There is no equivalent tool in the Office Web Apps.
Mobile: Mixed bag
The Google Drive mobile allows editing of word processing documents right from the app, and viewing of spreadsheets, presentations, and graphics. There's an option to open the files in other applications as well.
The SkyDrive mobile app shows previews of word processing documents, spreadsheets, PDFs, and presentations, but not OneNote notebooks. As with the Google Drive app, there's an option to open the files in other applications.
Both SkyDrive and Google Drive can also be accessed from a mobile browser like Safari, and both default to a mobile-friendly interface. Google Docs, however, allows mobile-friendly editing of spreadsheets and word processing documents. Google also easily switches into "desktop" mode, which allows full editing of graphics files.
SkyDrive does not easily switch into desktop mode, and defaults back to view-only mode for individual documents. However, there's an excellent - and free - standalone OneNote app for the iPhone and Android platforms as well as for the Windows RT tablet.
According to Microsoft, all the Office Web Apps documents are fully editable on iOS and Windows tablets, and are optimised for the touch interface.
The tablet version of the Google Drive app doesn't have a lot of functionality, but Google Docs can be easily accessed and edited through a tablet's browser.
For existing Google Docs users, there's nothing - yet - in Office Web Apps that should make them rush to switch over.
Individuals and companies committed to Office, SharePoint, or Office 365 should keep an eye on the Office Web Apps, but wait before committing any money to the platform.
Microsoft needs to demonstrate that it is serious about the web apps, filling in the missing functionality, and improving collaboration and mobile support - even if it cuts into its existing Office user base.