Office Web Apps vs Google Docs

Microsoft is making its Office Web Apps available free to personal users as part of its SkyDrive (a name slightly redolent of Skynet) cloud service. This is meant to complement the full MS Office suite but I am more interested in seeing how good a job it does as a stand-alone package, like Google Docs or even OpenOffice. After all, wouldn’t it be cool to be able to run genuine MS Office from Linux for free? OK. Don’t answer that. Lets just give it a try and see how it faces up to Google Docs.

Registration

To use Office Web Apps*, you have to sign up to Skydrive which means that you have to get a Windows Live ID. For Google Docs you need to get a Google Mail or Google Apps account.

I immediately hit a problem with OWA where Windows specific fonts are replaced with unreadable ones. Avoiding this involved turning off the ability of websites to mandate their own fonts in Firefox in order to make the registration screen readable. This seems to be a problem with my rather outdated Linux install. It works fine in Solaris, so it isn’t a fundamental issue with X11 or non-MS OSes. That said, I have never seen this problem in any other web application, so it suggests that MS are doing something non-standard, as usual.

Features

So what do we get for our zero dollar outlay?

Feature Office Web Apps Google Docs
Word Processor Word Document
Spreadsheet Excel Spreadsheet
Slideshows PowerPoint Presentation
Vector Drawing Drawing
Forms Form
Notes OneNote

Microsoft has chosen to use the branding of the individual Office components in OWA (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, etc). This makes a lot of sense given their desire to match the full MS Office environment and the extent to which these brand names are ingrained into our minds like Biro, Tipp-Ex and Post It. The Google applications don’t really have names. They are features rather than stand alone web applications.

Getting Started

Once registered it becomes clear that both OWA and Google Docs are fussy about what browser you are using:

Browser Office Web Apps Google Docs
Firefox Works Works
Seamonkey Fails (detected as a mobile platform) Spreadsheet & Presentation work. Document fails (seizes up).
Konqueror Fails (blank pane when you try to edit a file) Fails (incompatible browser error)

All subsequent tests were done in Firefox.

Word Processing

OWA: Word

I start by making a new Word document and the Word editor is fired up. This only takes a few seconds to load all its Ajax and then I can start typing.

The ribbon is a bit odd. First of all, many icons are shown in white on very light grey, making them almost invisible. This turns out to be another quirk of my system. I switch to Solaris for the rest of the testing. After that the icons on the ribbon look correct and everything seems pretty similar to real Office 2007/2010.

Using various controls causes it to pause for a while and download more Ajax. I guess this is better than making the user wait a minute to get started but it doesn’t make for a snappy user interface. I notice that sometimes you can carry on even when the cursor indicates that it is busy. I switch into reading view (which is more WYSIWYG but not editable) and am told that it would all be so much faster and better if I just installed Siverlight. (Yeah. Right. Remind me which platforms that runs on again.)

Feature wise, there is not much on the ribbon. There is no way to create diagrams. All you can do is add images. In fact, the ribbon is more sparse than it looks as it is padded out with large buttons for the paragraph styles that would easily fit on a simple dropdown list. There is a decent range of searchable clip art.

To see if it can cope with a more complicated document I upload my CV in DOC format and choose to edit it in the browser. It does some sort of conversion on it and opens it. It is recognisably my document. It has been slightly confused by a table with merged cells and I can’t fix this. Switching to Reading View confirms that formatting has not been mangled and the table error is not visible.

I guess this is usable for writing simple documents.

Google Docs: Document

The first thing that is clear about Document is that it is much less flashy than Word. The user interface is the old style of drop down menus as seen in Office 2003 and OpenOpenoffice. Everything is much simpler and significantly faster than in Word (which is not to say that this is lightening fast or that Word was dog slow). There is no confusing disparity between editing and viewing modes. Instead there is a Print Preview which you can use to verify the appearance. There are rather more features on the menus than Word offers and each is easy to use. It is possible to insert drawings made in the Drawing application. There is an equation editor. It is still clearly a cut down word processor compared to OpenOffice or the full version of Word but seems to cover most of the basics OK.

To see if it can cope with a more complicated document I upload my CV in DOC format. As with OWA, it does some sort of conversion on it and opens it. It is recognisably my document. Like OWA, it has been slightly confused by the table with the merged cells, and this time it will affect the printed document but at least it lets me fix the table layout. It has made one additional error, by putting numbering on some headings that are not supposed to be numbered. This is easily switched off.

This is something I could see myself using if I was ever stranded without a proper Office package.

Verdict: Minor Google Win

While Word did a slightly better job on the document conversion, this is a small win for Google Docs for being simpler, faster, more featureful while not messing up the conversion badly enough to be a real problem.

SpreadSheet

OWA: Excel

I make a new Excel document. Excel fires up and looks convincingly like a spreadsheet. I note a lot of missing features though. You can’t merge cells or add extra worksheets and there are no styles or charts. Ctrl-Z works as Undo but is slow. You can’t optimise the table layout in any way except by dragging columns. Adding formulas works but they are slow to update themselves. You can make sortable tables. There isn’t much else you can do.

Unlike Word, there is no save button. Changes are saved automatically. Skydrive retains one version per session. This divergence of behaviour indicates that separate teams seem to have been working on each application separately. There is a general lack of integration. Pressing Edit In Browser from the version list leaves the version list up and you editing in a rather cramped box at the side. This does not seem very polished.

Uploading an XLS file causes it to be converted to XLSX. Interestingly this process fails on a fairly simple spreadsheet of Zopa data. I am told that the workbook is too big to open in the browser. It is 5.8 Mb. That’s fairly big but not outlandish.

As you might expect, writing a usable spreadsheet in the browser has clearly presented much greater challenges than the word processor. I would not like to have to use this to write spreadsheets from scratch but it might work better editing existing documents.

Google Docs: Spreadsheet

From the start Google Spreadsheet impresses. It does charts. It does them reasonably well! Columns optimise when you double click their header boundaries. You can add notes (they call them comments). You can also make and insert diagrams made in Drawing. You can freeze columns.You can protect sheets. You can sort sections of data although this doesn’t make them into tables, as in Excel. There is also conditional formatting.

Of course, it still isn’t fully featured. You can merge cells butonly horizonatally. There are no recordable macros but there are scripts, complete with a library of pre-written scripts you can use. There are limits on the dimensions of the sheets but at least you can add new sheets.

Uploading the same 5.8Mb XLS file as before causes it to be converted. Again this process fails I am told that the file size limit for conversion is 1Mb. This seems a bit mean. Converting the document to ODS format in OpenOffice only reduces it to 1.5Mb and it still won’t work.

Google has come up with a reasonable replacement for a full spreadsheet application. I could see myself using this if I had to. That said, only a full office package can hope to crunch through really serious spreadsheets.

Verdict: Major Google Win

With good performance and a pretty decent feature set Google Docs trounces OWA Excel in all respects.

Slide Shows

OWA: Powerpoint

This seems OK. Inserting slides and putting in bullet points all works fine. Inserting diagrams with Smart Art is actually very nice. You choose the type of diagram you want and then populate it by giving it a bulleted list of data. It only takes a little trial and error to work out what level of indentation leads to what results on the diagram. This is pretty cool. It gives you lots of usable diagram types and saves you the pain of trying to draw stuff yourself. If you do want to draw stuff yourself then you are out of luck. You can’t. Performance is a little sluggish.

Random thought: Why didn’t they put SmartArt in Word as well? I mean, having written it, why not use it? It could even have been be extended to provide charts in Excel.

Google Docs: Presentation

This seems OK too. Inserting slides and putting in bullet points all works fine. Performance is a bit sluggish. It is much more like OpenOffice or PowerPoint 2003. You can insert shapes and drawings, as well as images. This makes it much more flexible than OWA Powerpoint but there is nothing like SmartArt though.

Verdict: Minor Google Win

Much as SmartArt impresses, the inability to draw your own diagrams more than offsets this. With better performance, Google Docs wins this but both are usable for making simple slide shows.

Vector Drawing

OWA

OWA has no vector drawing facility.

Google Docs: Drawing

Drawing is a simple vector drawing utility that can produce stand alone drawings/diagrams or be invoked from Document, Spreadsheet or Presentation to embed drawings in their documents. Performance is good and even freehand drawing follows the mouse smoothly. That’s some impressive Ajax!

The one big downside is that drawings can be downloaded as SVG but not uploaded and re-edited. There is no round trip.

Verdict: Major Google Win

This provides a very useful feature and gives the other Google Docs applications a major edge over their OWA equivalents. Microsoft would be mad not to regard adding something similar to OWA as a priority for the next version.

Forms

OWA

OWA does not have any facility for making forms and OWA Word does not seem to be able to make forms. Maybe it handles existing form documents but I don’t have one to try out.

Google Docs: Form

Form is a tool for making web forms. This does not make the form as a document or spreadsheet. Instead the form can be sent by e-mail or embedded in a web page. The responses to the form are automatically collated into a spreadsheet.

Instead of invoking Form directly, you can start with the empty result spreadsheet, populated with the headings you want, and make a form from that.

I would take issue with this being considered a “Docs” feature as it is clearly a workflow and collaboration tool that moves us away from a traditional document based approach to office life. Of course, that is just a quibble. It is potentially quite useful.

Verdict: Google Wins by Default

It is hard to say how big a win this is for Google. Microsoft probably regards web forms, intranets and the like as being the domain of MS SharePoint and outside the scope of OWA. That said, Google is giving this away for free and that has to count as a win for the users.

Notes

OneNote

This seems to work OK. I can make notes and put them in sections. I have never really seen the appeal of OneNote myself but it does provide a structure for taking and organising notes over keeping them in multiple documents of other types. People who have to deal with a lot of ad-hoc information might find it useful

Google Docs

Google Docs does not provide a note taking application. Of course you can write notes in the other Google Docs applications but this does not help you to organise them. You can also use the tasks list in Google Calendar, the Notes facility in Google Reader or maybe the Wikis in Google Sites. Whether that is really comparable to OneNote’s functionality is highly questionable though.

Verdict: Microsoft Wins by Default

I don’t know anybody who depends on OneNote they way so many people depend on Word, Excel or Outlook. That said, it is a useful tool and Google doesn’t have a direct equivalent so it is a minor but definite MS win.

Templates, Clip Art, etc

OWA

OWA does not seem to have any templates although it does have slide styles for PowerPoint and a decent searchable clip art library which can only be used in Word and One Note.

Google Docs

Google Docs is preloaded with a reasonable array of document templates you can use. These cover the usual template stuff like budgets, CVs, invoices etc. You can also make your own documents into templates. There are also slide styles for use in Presentation.

For its clip art, the insert image option lets you pull stuff straight out of Google Images. Fortunately it only searches images that are licensed for reuse, so no need to panic about copyright or inappropriate images. The images can be used in all applications.

Verdict: Minor Google Win

It is not like you can’t get templates from other places and upload them for use in OWA but Google Docs saves you the bother. Google also wins because you can add clip art images to any type of document, even spreadsheets.

User Interface

OWA

OWA uses the ribbon interface, which some people like and some don’t. Its graphical style is attractive and consistent with MS Office 2010. The ribbon wastes a bit of space but there is an option to collapse it. Documents can be popped out into separate windows, which makes it feel more like using a full office package.

Google Docs

Google Docs uses an old-style drop-down menu interface. This allows more features to be included in less space but features are not as visible until you explore the menus. Eye candy has been sacrificed for speed and simplicity. Documents tend to open in separate browser tabs instead of popping out into separate windows.

Verdict: A draw

A lot of this is purely down to taste. Personally I prefer the Google Docs interface but an MS Office 2007 user would probably disagree. If either offered the user a choice between ribbons and menus then that would make them the winner. Neither do, so lets call it a draw.

Storage

SkyDrive

I found SkyDrive’s file browser to be a bit confusing. Oddly, it will let you make new documents at the top level but only upload documents into a subfolder. Ignoring its special integration with Internet Explorer, you can upload up to 5 documents at a time. This is not fast but it works OK. SkyDrive retains old saved versions of the document, which is useful.

Google Docs

Google Docs gives you a much more familiar file browser feel and there is less weirdness. You can get thumbnail previews and sorting the files is easy. You can upload multiple documents but I am not sure how many at a time. Uploads are about the same speed as SkyDrive. Versioning of documents is handled within the applications rather than in the file browser.

Verdict: Minor Google Win

While Google wins on its simpler interface there isn’t much in it. Both give you loads of space to store stuff, and will keep track of your file versions, and that is the main thing. Users are going to hit the document conversion size limits long before they start filling their space up with thousands of small documents so the total storage allocated is not really an issue.

Compatibility and File Formats

OWA

OWA uses the Office 2007/2010 file formats (DOCX, XLSX, etc) as its native file formats and makes little concession to anybody wanting to use anything else. Office 97/2000/XP/2003 files (DOC, XLS, etc) are converted on first edit. Once edited they can only be downloaded in the new formats. There is no PDF support.

As a test I let it convert my CV from a DOC to a DOCX file. I downloaded it and tried it out in OpenOffice. Apart from adding numbering to the section headings, it seems fine.

Given that OWA is going to force any document round tripped through it into the new formats it is going to cause problems for users of MS Office 2000/XP/2003 and OpenOffice. Even with the Office 2007 Compatibility Pack, they are going to find themselves converting documents forwards and backwards all the time and eventually they will get corrupted. Only an Office package that supports the new formats directly will be able to avoid this. This means MS Office 2007/2010. Clearly this is intended to push users of older versions to upgrade.

I can understand Microsoft’s reluctance to support their old binary file formats but surely supporting RTF and/or HTML export wouldn’t have killed them?

Google Docs

Google Docs has an internal file format that is never exposed to the user. Documents are converted on upload or download. An reasonably large range of formats are supported for conversion. The downside is that this means that there is no way to avoid the size limits on document conversion by using the native file format.

Application Formats
Document Round trip: ODT, PDF, RTF, DOC, TXT
Upload only: DOCX, SXC, GIF, JPEG, PNG, HTML
Download only: Zipped HTML
Spreadsheet Round trip: ODS, CSV, XLS
Upload only: XLSX
Download only: PDF, HTML, TXT
Presentation Round trip: PPT
Upload only: PPS
Download only: PDF, TXT
Drawing Download only: SVG, PDF, JPEG, PNG
Form N/A (hosted)

This is all very impressive, at least in theory. Of course, you would need to do quite a lot of testing of round trips (converting documents back and forth) before you could be sure that the documents will not be damaged by this but it shows a serious commitment to at least try to support a range of common file formats including genuinely open ones like OpenDocument.

I did a little bit of round trip testing. The first thing I noticed is that embedded Drawings do not save when converted to DOC or ODT. This is not encouraging.

PDF, GIF, JPEG and PNG can be OCRed on upload. This converts them into documents. As you might expect, this feature is not entirely foolproof but it is impressive that it is offered at all. It is not a feature you would want to use all the time but it could help you out of an occasional nasty situation (How often have you lost an original document and only had a PDF to work with?).

Verdict: Potentially An Absolutely Massive Google Win!

Notice that I say “potentially”.

For me, file compatibility is just as important as the applications themselves. A commitment to open file formats and interoperability is a huge advantage for Google. Support for PDF is a great bonus and the OCR facility is just showing off.

Google need to do some more work to actually deliver that “absolutely massive win” though. They need to work on getting documents to round-trip without corruption or data loss. The fact that a simple drawing gets lost on conversion shows how much work is needed.

As a long term OpenOffice user who has had to deal with a lot of MS Office documents, I can appreciate that this stuff isn’t easy however I also know that OpenOffice is now handling the MS Office formats with almost native quality. It is possible and the code to do it is available as Open Source right now.

Conclusions

Both packages are better than I expected. Writing an office package in Ajax takes some balls! It is pushing the technology to its limits. The fact that both packages let you create and edit documents at all is something.

Office Web Apps does not seem to have come off well in this article but lets be clear about my purpose. I was trying to use OWA as a stand alone office package which is not what it is meant to be. OWA is meant to be a supplement to Office 2010, hence its use of its native file formats and its buttons to invoke the local installation of MS Office, which you are assumed to have. It is not intended to be fully featured in itself. To a great extent I have been judging it on things it never set out to achieve.

Google Docs is clearly built to be far closer to my vision of a complete, if lightweight, office package that just happens to live on the web. It is hardly a surprise that it scores higher with me. That said, their vision does not seem to encompass regular round tripping of documents into other office packages. They are not evil enough to lock our data in but they are clearly not doing enough to prioritise it being exported without loss or corruption.

Another major weak point of both is the file size limit on conversion. The one-way conversion to the new file formats in OWA is a pain and may well be against the best interests of many users. The constant conversion on upload and download in Google Docs is also a worry. Any conversion introduces a risk of data loss or layout corruption so doing it on every upload or download is a cause for concern. That said, there is no other way to support multiple file formats. They can’t all be native. Google scores massively for supporting a range of formats rather than opting for just one.

So am I ready to give up OpenOffice and put everything on the web? Hell no! Impressive though it is, Google Docs is still slower and less featured than a full office package. It is not for me. So who is it for? Clearly it is perfect for people with no fixed PC and people who need to work on documents collaboratively and are all happy to use Google Docs for that. Throw in one OpenOffice or MS Office user and it all goes a bit wrong.

One day the balance may shift and push me into the cloud, but not yet.

Links

* – Note that Office Web Apps has same acronym as Outlook Web Access. So no scope for confusion there then…

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June 30, 2010. IT, Links, Sensible.

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