Tanks for the memories: Building a post-Microsoft Office cloud suite

Redmond owned it, Google invaded. Your options

Toy tanks photo via Shutterstock

Analysis Microsoft for decades not only defined personal productivity and team collaboration using Office, Outlook and Exchange – it kept the competition at arm’s length.

Today, however, there’s a large community of businesses that don’t look to Microsoft for collaboration or productivity solutions at all. In fact, Microsoft doesn’t even appear on their radar when they think of the cloud, the successor to on-premises software such as Office.

If you don’t have the complexity of legacy systems to integrate with or a need for complicated macros in Excel, why would you look to the ageing software giant?

Doesn’t it make sense to go with cool, simple Software-as-a-Service solutions like G Suite, Dropbox or Slack?

Google is the single largest alternative force to Microsoft and Office 365 out there, but if you were to begin building an alternative stack, what might it look like exactly?

Mail and Calendar

Google smashed the consumer email market with Gmail and Google Calendar, quickly becoming more favoured than Outlook.com. You’ll find both products in the business-grade G Suite plan, along with eDiscovery and archiving capabilities. They have mobile apps (iOS and Android) and web browser access from the desktop.

Not surprisingly, Google Chrome is the preferred browser for full functionality, including offline access. Yes, you can use Chrome to view and send emails when you’re disconnected (if enabled by your admin), if you’ve installed the Chrome plugin and synced it first. By default, it only syncs seven days’ worth of emails and tweaking a setting will give you one month of data, max.

There’s also an offline limitation of only being able to send attachments that are less than 5MB in size. In the Google world, stars replace email flags and labels kind of replace folders. Messages can have multiple labels so they show up in multiple places, including staying in your Inbox and also displaying a personal label. Remove the Inbox label (via Move To) and your email is now only in one folder (which is actually a label view).

Calendar is pretty standard, easily sharable and it integrates with Google Hangouts (like Skype integrates with Exchange online) for scheduling & displaying online meetings. Third-party vendors jumped on G Suite integration quickly, but the gap is closing. It’s getting harder to find apps that integrate with G Suite and don’t also talk to Office 365, but they do exist. Pipedrive, Freshdesk and Mavenlink all prefer to talk to Google products.

Add-in Rapportive adds Microsoft-owned LinkedIn information to Gmail, but not to Office 365 (you’ll need something like Full Contact for that). Hopefully LinkedIn integration is something that Microsoft will nail, but we’re still waiting.

Documents, spreadsheets and presentations

For this Cloud-based discussion, we’ll leave LibreOffice out of it. Google’s Docs, Sheets and Slides allow standard word processing, number crunching and presentation templates in your browser. Want to email them? You’ll be sending a link to the file’s web location in Google Drive and the recipient will need a Google Account to even view them.

Google will argue that everyone has a Google account and if you do, it’s a very simple process to share and co-edit your files, including with people outside your organisation. Offline access is achieved through a Google Chrome plugin and you get a pseudo-form of the file, not something you can actually copy across to a USB stick. Crossing the streams here is not as effective as Google will have you believe. Yes, you can use Docs to open a Word doc and Sheets to open an Excel spreadsheet, but the formatting can be compromised depending on the complexity of the contents.

The worst “feature” is the way Google Drive handles editing of Office files. It creates a separate file that’s Google-compatible, every time you edit a Microsoft Office file. Because they are separate files, you have no version history tracking and you get multiple files with the same filename in your Drive folder. It also doesn’t lock the original Office file or support co-authoring, so your colleagues can make their own changes and save their own versions at the same time. This isn’t a problem if you live in a purely Google world, but I’ve seen finance departments of Googlefied companies cling to Excel.

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