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At IT Freedom, we spend a lot of time evaluating cloud services for businesses in Austin, integrating them into our products and solutions, and supporting them for our customers. As a result, we’ve formed some opinions about various products and how one can go making the best choice for their business. A little bit of that insight is what we’ll share here today.

One of the most common questions that we get comes from our customers or prospective customers who find themselves in a really common scenario: they have aging in-house servers and want to look at “moving to the cloud.” That “move to the cloud” bit can mean a ton of different things, but the thing that people are usually talking about is moving their core productivity tools to a cloud-based service like Google Apps or Microsoft’s Office 365.

We won’t spend a lot of time talking about what Office 365 and Google Apps include or comparing their features because there are about a million other articles out there that dive into the nuts and bolts of each. To cut right to it, Office 365 and Google Apps are two competing offerings that provide basic business tools such as email, file storage, text chat and conferencing, and other similar services, plus potentially a lot more by letting third-party developers tie in their own apps. They provide these things “in the cloud”, which is a buzzy way of saying that they run on Microsoft’s or Google’s own server infrastructure. You don’t have to own and maintain your own server to use these tools; they’re hosted somewhere that you don’t even have to think about, and you reach them over the Internet.

We’re going to focus on a more interesting question than which is “better” or comparing feature sets: How do you pick the one that’s best for your business? Both are solid choices, but which is the best fit depends on the details.

We’ve had good success in cutting through some of the complexity with a simple, if slightly silly, question.  Is your business Microsofty or Googly? If you follow the tech industry at all, you may be familiar with these impressions: Google projects an image of being a fast-moving, low-bureaucracy, quick-to-adopt-the-latest company. Microsoft, on the other hand, definitely comes to mind as more of a “big corporate” type of place more apt to supporting legacy systems and trying to be everything to everyone–still brilliantly innovative in many cases and not afraid to shake things up occasionally (see: Windows 8), but with a more corporate mentality nevertheless.

There’s no value judgment implicit in those descriptions.  Both philosophies serve various businesses well for various reasons. But ask yourself: which of them sounds most compatible with your business?

Google Apps for Business

With Gmail, the core component of Google Apps, Google has significantly reinvented the way that email works. They have done so in such a successful fashion that if you’re a long-time Gmail user, some of these things won’t even seem new or innovative any more.

  • Email threads can be tagged rather than just filed into folders.

  • The default message disposal action is “Archive” rather than “Delete” in acknowledgement that massive mailbox storage space and search features can keep historical content readily accessible indefinitely.

  • The principal user interface is entirely in the web browser, meaning that you can jump into your mailbox from any computer and have the exact same experience.

  • Innovative features like “Priority Inbox,” integrations with third-party services, and things from Google Labs can all be pushed out quickly.  And, new features like these are pushed out without any local software updates or re-installs.

The guiding philosophy of Google Apps is to provide smart, lightweight solutions.

Office 365 for Business

Microsoft has taken a significantly different approach with Office 365. Office 365 is based on Microsoft’s long-dominant Exchange email server product. While they have made massive gains in terms of reaching parity with Google on some things that users expect these days—browser-based user interfaces, robust cloud file storage, and many other areas—at its heart, Office 365 will feel familiar to those used to Exchange-based emails systems and Microsoft’s ubiquitous Outlook email software.

So, when considering the move to the cloud, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Can I see my users being happy interacting with their email in a web browser like with Gmail?  Or are your users more likely to consider “Outlook” to be a synonym for “email”?

  • For my users who are used to Outlook, are they “hardcore” Outlook users who might freak out if things are even just a little bit different?  Google Apps does support using Outlook as your client software, but it’s not quite the same.

  • How deeply embedded into the Microsoft world are my business processes?  Consider things like Outlook plugins, email folders, filtering rules, and other components of the Microsoft Office suite.

  • Are you more comfortable with Office 365’s product philosophy of having many different versions to choose from?  Or with Google’s of having just a couple of options that keep things simple and generally do work for most everyone?

If you’re considering the move to the cloud and could use a more guided, nuanced analysis of your business needs, please give us a call.