Review: Microsoft Office Online vs. Apple iWork for iCloud vs. Google Drive

Online word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation apps can be surprisingly useful, or surprisingly lame, and not even Microsoft aces Office document compatibility

Over the past few weeks I've regaled you with detailed reviews of the three major online office productivity suites: Microsoft Office Online with Word Online, Excel Online, and PowerPoint Online; Apple's iWork for iCloud with Pages, Numbers, and Keynote for iCloud; and Google Drive (aka Google Apps) with Docs, Sheets, and Slides. Which suite is for you? There is no clear winner in this horse race, so your specific needs will dictate that choice.

All of these browser-based products are free for personal use. Microsoft Office Online and Google Drive are also available in paid plans for businesses. Enigmatically, Apple calls iWork for iCloud a "beta," and hasn't yet committed on pricing for the final, shipping version. However, keep in mind that iWork for iOS and iWork for OS X are both free for those who bought Apple machines after September 2013. As of this moment, iWork for iCloud is free to everyone, thus giving Apple a nice boost in the "value" category.

[ Read the individual reviews: Google Drive leads in features, lags in ease-of-use | Apple's iWork for iCloud is elegant but limited | Office Online is great for Word and Excel, not PowerPoint | Get the latest insight on the tech news that matters from InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. ]

All of the programs in the suites are accessed using one of the major browsers. None of them require you to install, activate, or maintain any programs on your local computer. Log on, use the browser-based app, and walk away.

I approached each of the suites from the perspective of a Windows and Office user, taking special interest in the way each handles Office document compatibility. Compatibility with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents may or may not be important to you. I also ran the suites with a keyboard and mouse. You screen-tappers will certainly have a different perspective. Both Office Online and iWork for iCloud are more functional than Google Drive on mobile devices, whether you access them via mobile browser or use the native mobile client.

My reviews concentrated on the three traditional key productivity products: word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation apps. All of the suites also include mail, calendar, contacts, notes, and other apps, but I did not consider them in this review. I did discuss storing, managing, and accessing files in Microsoft OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive), Google Drive, and Apple iCloud. All three suites push you into a cloud walled garden, with limited file handling and interoperability with other cloud storage services.

All of the primary tests were performed with Windows 7 and Internet Explorer 11 (except for Keynote for iCloud, which I ran in Chrome). I also ran a series of secondary tests using a wide array of operating systems and browsers.

Take it from the topMicrosoft's Office Online (known as Office Web Apps before February 2014) works with any recent version of IE, Firefox, Chrome, or Safari. It's free for personal use. Individuals and organizations with Office 365 subscriptions (from $60 to $240 per person per year) automatically get licenses to use the Office Online apps. If you're familiar with Office 2010 or Office 2013/Office 365, you should be able to jump right into the Office Online apps and get going.

While Microsoft packs a great many useful features into its Office Online suite, I was most disappointed by three problems. First, in my tests, Office Online bungled several Office documents -- real ones, gathered in the wild. The damage included a Word doc with a simple formula, an Excel spreadsheet with macros, and a large Word document consisting of photos and text boxes that, when opened in Office Online, then saved, was completely mangled. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint Online won't even open password-protected documents.

Second, the Office Online interface is still staunchly old-school Office. There's been no attempt to borrow from the excellent Office for iPad efforts. That means, among other things, you're visually bewildered by many choices that don't do much.

Third, PowerPoint Online is both buggy and severely limited. It might be useful for creating a very simple presentation or sketching out a presentation you'll flesh out later in desktop PowerPoint. But I wouldn't trust it to edit an existing presentation.

Among the three suites, only Apple's iWork for iCloud feels like it was designed, from the ground up, as a cohesive package. The result is that all the iWork for iCloud apps behave similarly -- learn to do something in Pages, and you know how to do it in Sheets and Keynote. Apple's suite is also much more finger-friendly than the other two. If you're limited to working without a mouse, there's no question that iWork for iCloud is the way to go.

The iWork for iCloud suite is still officially in "beta," which adds a note of uncertainty to this review. We don't know, at this point, if Apple will one day charge companies (or individuals) to use the final, shipping version. For now, though, it's free as a breeze. Apple used to sell iOS and OS X versions of the iWork apps, but as of September 2013, they're free for anyone who buys a new Apple computer.

My biggest disappointment with iWork for iCloud? File handling. Unlike the other two suites, iWork for iCloud doesn't have a hook into Windows Explorer. Using a file on your computer inside iWork for iCloud requires that you first upload the file into one of the iCloud bins by clicking and dragging it into a browser tab. Worse, the bins only hold files of the same type. You can't mix a word processor document with a spreadsheet in the same tab, much less the same folder.

I finally figured out how to create folders inside iCloud: You have to drag one file on top of another inside the tab. No, you can't simply drag a file from your desktop (or Windows Explorer) onto another file and create a folder. It's a rigidly two-step process.

Google Drive (Docs, Sheets, and Slides) has a feature set and interface that remind me of Office 2003. Don't get me wrong -- Office 2003 is a great product. The Google apps are free for personal use, and they come with 15GB of free Google storage. Corporate and organizational clients get socked with a $50-per-user-per-year price tag, but that brings along a bunch of management software, (very) roughly analogous to Office 365 for Business (see my review). Google Apps for Education and Google Apps for Nonprofits are free.

Like Microsoft's OneDrive, Google Drive integrates easily with Windows Explorer: Download and install a local client. You can even make Google Drive -- or Dropbox, for that matter -- your default save location in the desktop version of Office 2013. Unfortunately, you can't do that in Office Online.

My two big disappointments with Google Drive: First, Google has been at this game a long time, and the apps have grown in a gangly way, much like desktop Office. You won't find any of the elegance or unifying logic in the Google Drive apps that you'll find in iWork for iCloud (or Office for iPad, for that matter). That said, if you know Office 2003 with its pre-Ribbon menus, you'll feel right at home with Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides.

Second, I'm still not comfortable with Google's unabashed approach of scanning all of my documents in pursuit of ad clicks. Unlike some companies (and governments) I could mention, Google is honest about it. But it still makes me queasy.

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Scoring the cloud productivity suites There is nothing so personal as a personal productivity suite. Thus, assuredly, your results will vary. If your organization needs an online productivity program that won't mangle Microsoft Office documents, the compatibility score may outweigh all other considerations. If you're going to cloud productivity apps to save money, then value rules supreme. But be aware of the fact that we don't know, long term, if Apple will charge for its suite.

Google Docs is a decent word processor, but Pages for iCloud is superior in many ways. Word Online comes with many features that aren't included in Pages for iCloud, but in some respects -- for example, handling pictures, text boxes, tables -- Pages for iCloud runs rings around Word Online. The ability to create and run scripts in Google Docs means it has been -- and will continue to be -- extended in many useful ways. None of the editors come close to the depth of features in Word 2013, nor do they approach Apple's Pages for OS X.

In the spreadsheet realm, we're seeing an intense race to determine which features people want most and to get those features pushed out the door. Overall, I tend to favor Google Sheets, not because it has a broader set of features than Excel Online (it doesn't), but because one feature -- programmability -- can trump them all. Your results may well vary. If you rely on Excel formulas and features such as pivot tables, you'll undoubtedly side with Excel.

For presentations, Keynote for iCloud easily outpaces the competition, with Google Slides pulling up a solid second. PowerPoint is undoubtedly the weakest of all the online apps. It seems that the designers of PowerPoint Online looked at Keynote for iCloud and said, "OK, we give up."

All nine apps are changing, very quickly. In recent weeks, Apple announced that Pages could now export in ePub format, Numbers could export to CSV, and Keynote has added a setting to show or hide slide numbers. All iWork for iCloud apps now support up to 100 people collaborating in a document at the same time. There are 200 new fonts, more color options, and new interactive charts.

Also in recent weeks, Google announced it had new antitheft account verification, and it had completed the rollout of direct image editing (anticipated in my Google Drive review). Microsoft doesn't have the hell-bent-for-leather update pace of the other two, but in April the official Office Blog talked about a bunch of improvements in Excel Online.

If a particular app doesn't have a feature you need, check back again in a week or two.

Future directionsAlthough Apple, Google, and Microsoft will no doubt disagree, it's not at all clear to me if online office suites have much of a future. They occupy a rather strange niche in the three companies' software lineups.

On the Microsoft side, Office 365 is the moneymaker. With Office for Windows, OS X, and iPad now a reality, it's a foregone conclusion that we'll see Office for Android -- not to mention the widely anticipated touch-first version of Office. In the past, Office Online has served as a surrogate for Office customers who want to go mobile. In the future, Microsoft will no doubt come up with native applications for nearly every platform. Where will that leave Office Online? Good question.

Apple has a very different approach. It's building iWork for iCloud to closely mimic the OS X and iPad versions of iWork -- to the point of choking off features in the older versions of iWork in order to present a more unified interface across all of its platforms. Heaven only knows if Apple will build native Windows, Android, or other versions of the iWork apps. One thing's for sure: Apple takes Office compatibility very seriously. As bandwidth increases and browsers get better, perhaps Apple will build out iWork for iCloud and not concern itself with native apps for non-Apple platforms.

Google takes yet another tack. The Google apps are going everywhere, compliments of Chrome and Google's attempt to turn a browser into an operating system. Google is testing the waters by implementing HTML5-based offline access, not only to Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, and the rest, but to other Chrome apps as well. At the same time, Google has announced Docs and Sheets for iOS and Android; it promises a Slides rendition as well. Right now, the native mobile apps, per InfoWorld's Galen Gruman, "mark a new low." Will they ever grow up to be comparable to their Google Offline brethren? All it takes is time and money.

It's fair to say that any of the three online office suites can support almost all office workers, almost all of the time. The sticking point will be the walled garden. If you're passing Word Online documents to someone running Word for Windows, for example, going through OneDrive is easy -- but every other route is hard. Google Drive behaves similarly, but without native desktop applications and with mobile applications that stink, so you're stuck on the Web anyway. Apple makes any kind of rational file manipulation stand-on-your-head-and-pat-your-belly difficult.

If a Web companion to desktop Office is what you seek, Office Online has the edge. That said, don't expect to view and edit Office docs in Office Online with nary a hiccup. While simple Office documents can go through a round trip to Office Online and escape unscathed, even moderately complicated documents can end up in shreds.

If you relax your requirement for desktop Office compatibility, both Apple and Google offer excellent alternatives. Apple's iWork for iCloud feels like it was designed to unify the concepts behind word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. The user interfaces are all remarkably similar, minimalist, and easy to follow. The design is at once elegant and accessible. And though Apple's online word processor and spreadsheet may not measure up to Microsoft's or Google's in features, for those who tend to build documents rich in visual flourishes, iWork for iCloud brings more tools to bear.

By contrast, Google's Docs, Sheets, and Slides feel like they've been cobbled together from spare parts -- much like Office 2003. They cover a whole lot of ground, but in a meandering way. Taken together, though, they comprise the most feature-rich online productivity suite. The word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation apps are all highly functional. The same can't be said for Office Online.

This story, "Review: Microsoft Office Online vs. Apple iWork for iCloud vs. Google Drive," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in Windows, applications, and cloud computing at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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