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Google Docs vs. MS Office: Want vs. Need

I am confronted with this question quite often while conducting Office Efficiency sessions.
In spite of writing 716 blog posts as on date, I have not covered this topic – intentionally. Why not? Because if you actually compare the products, concluding that Microsoft Office (and Office 365) is better is a no-brainer.

Problem: There seems to be a lot of confusion and ambiguity in the minds of decision makers, users and IT professionals about this issue.

Solution: Let us compare some features and try to reach a conclusion.

google docs vs. ms office by Dr. Nitin Paranjape

Don’t worry too much about the content of this visual. I just tried to make it look like a poster with lot of filler text.

Example: Typing a document

In order to be fair, I am taking an activity which is universally applicable. It is not some arcane and sophisticated feature which a small subset of user population uses occasionally. What can be more common than typing? So let us start with this and compare the features.

Typing with styles

Word offers many styles. But for base document creation there are 9 styles – Heading 1, 2, 3 and so on.

  • Once styles are applied, a Navigation pane is available for quickly moving from one place to another.
  • It also helps you reorganize the document by simple drag drop operation.
  • Multi-level numbering is also available in few clicks. It is completely customizable.
  • Table of Contents can be created in few clicks as well.
  • The styles can be customized (without any programming or third-party intervention) to match the corporate branding guidelines of your company.
  • Custom Styles are easy to create and manage.
  • Once created, a base template using corporate styles can be deployed across the organization using AD and Group Policy (along with SharePoint, if required).
  • In order to enforce corporate branding, users can be made to use only the approved styles for formal documents.
  • Google offers only 3 styles. No customization is possible. Three levels of depth is grossly inadequate even for a student level project report.

    Another example: Copy Paste

    Again a very common feature used by EVERYONE.
    Text with different formatting is pasted. Left side is Google docs.

    image      image

    Microsoft Word knows what are the common variations people will want and provides all those options in a smart menu which appears automatically when needed. Here we have to choose the last option Keep text only. These options change automatically depending upon the source, destination and clipboard content.

    In case of Google Docs, the text has to be manually formatted to make it look like the surroundings. Additional manual work – repeatedly. Obviously, this is inefficient.

    If you end up choosing the same option Keep Text Only again and again, you can even change the default behavior of Word using Set Default Paste… In addition, Paste Special offers a large number of options including Paste Link which is extremely useful and versatile.

    Wait. There is more…

    There is more to Copy Paste than what we just saw.
    In fact I have written 21 articles about Copy Paste – and I am still not finished!

    Even though you are convinced that you already know how to Copy Paste,
    take few minutes and read a couple of these articles.

    There is even more. Eliminating Copy Paste!

    Ad-hoc copy paste is necessary. No doubt about that.
    However, .,,,,,another common reason we copy something and paste it somewhere else is because we want to REUSE that thing: paragraph, table, header/footer, cover page, textbox, etc.

    Microsoft Word offers a revolutionary method of managing reuse of content called
    Quick Parts (or Building Blocks). Have a look and you will be amazed.

    And of course, there is the good old AutoCorrect which automatically corrects typing mistakes. Try typing wuold and notice that Office automatically changes it to would.

    Did you know that Microsoft Office automatically corrects 2400+ commonly misspelt or mistyped words across 80+ languages.



    In the context of these two features, MS Office is eminently better than Google Docs.


    Primary Problem

    Wrong! Not so soon. There is one more thing to be noticed.

    What percentage of users are using these impressive features of MS Word?
    The answer is: a depressingly low percentage!

    Many of us are aware of this underutilization. Do we think about it?

    Pseudo-justification: “I only need these features”

    We tell ourselves (and others) that we are utilizing a small set of features because we need only those features. Those other features are too advanced for me.

    In reality, you have absolutely no clue what those “advanced” features are. So you have no right to comment on their usefulness or otherwise.

    You are making an authoritative judgment which is based upon ignorance.
    Surprised smileAngry smile

    Secondary problem: Flaw in comparison methodology

    Usually, while comparing product features an existence check is done.
    Nobody has time to go deeper into the feature on each platform.
    Therefore, the comparison is essentially a spreadsheet with three columns like this:


    The spreadsheet itself may have been downloaded from some site or
    provided by the vendor.

    I call this False sense of equality.

    Depth of design and feature maturity is rarely compared

    This leads to statements like “both platforms have most commonly used, basic or fundamental features”, “the feature set is comparable”, “a regular user will find all the commonly required tools in both platforms”.

    Why do we indulge in such an inadequate and misleading comparison?

    Now you know the reason. Those comparing the features themselves are using a small sub-set of available MS Office features. Their mindset is exactly the same as described above.

    Extent of underutilization

    Here is a comparison: Out of around 12,000 + features available in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and OneNote, only about 120 are used per user. Yes of course there is some variation in the exact feature set from person to person.

    However, the remaining 99.9% features are never looked at seriously. That is the reality.

    image    image

    Whatever features I want are available in Google Docs

    Finally we reach this conclusion. Probably Google did a survey as to what most users want and they created those features. Sounds like a fair approach.

    Why does Microsoft add those 99.9% features?

    Yes, even if we take into account of person specific variability in feature set, a vast majority of features are not even known to a vast majority of users.

    The real question is – why is Microsoft adding so many features which nobody wants and nobody is noticing?

    The answer is simple. Microsoft does not just give you features you WANT. That is not enough. You yourself may not know what you want or what exactly you want. Therefore, Microsoft goes BEYOND delivering what you want.

    Microsoft Office is designed to provide features that the world NEEDS. Users don’t even have a clue as to what they need. Because they have not analyzed their work and thought seriously or deeply about their method of getting the work done. Microsoft has!

    Need vs. Want

    That brings us to the another conclusion.

    Microsoft provides what users NEED and others provide what users WANT.

    It is called User Focus. If you are a software developer, you know that every feature originates from a use case. Use cases originate from users. Developers analyze what users need and provide solutions. Microsoft has been doing this for decades.

    On the other hand, other products which are compared with MS Office are just focusing on what unsuspecting and ignorant users seem to want and providing those features.

    Ignorance based comparison

    Consider this… MS Office has 12000 features, Google Docs has, say, 2000 features.
    These numbers are gross approximations.
    Don’t get worried about exact numbers. I am discussing a different issue here.

    The issue is, as a user I am using only 50-200 features. To make matters worse, the features that are used are – more often than not – misused!

    Under such circumstances, feature based comparison does not sound like the right way to approach the problem. We have to rethink on a completely different level.

    What Next?

    Well, this article has already become lengthy. But there are more issues to be discussed. I will cover these in separate articles.

    • As a typical user – “Do I really care?”
    • What about the cost difference?
    • Why am I paying for something which I am not using?
    • How do we maximize the ROI of investments?
    • Why do users not end up using features which may actually be useful to them?
    • How should technical comparison be conducted in a thorough and fair manner?
    • Who is comparing? Who is paying for it? Who is using? Is there a disconnect?

    All articles in this series are listed here:
    Knowledge Pack: Google Docs vs. Microsoft Office 365

    Your comments please…

    If you have any queries, comments or suggestions, feel free to post comments here.


8 Responses

  1. So the question arises is how do you get around (acknowledging the incredibly busy lives we lead with minimal time for up-skilling) the “we don’t know what we don’t know” problem. If I don’t know that I am missing something – am I? 12,000 components to learn to use – an impossible task. How do we change the “I know what I need to know” mentality?

    1. Hi Terry. Thanks for posting your views. Very pertinent question. I will address this and related issues (which are listed at the end of this article) in upcoming articles.
      The short answer is – which any user can try without any external help – explore features while you work and discover the need behind them. Solution to Need. I know it is counterintuitive. But trust me it works. I have spent 11 years of my life teaching this approach to people. It actually empowers people.

  2. Office 2016 has come with a fantastic new approach to what one needs to do. It’s called a small text field called “say what you want to do” (I’m translating this from Portuguese, so perhaps those are not the precise words).

    1. Yes Nuno. It is called “Tell me what you want to do…” It is a useful feature to quickly find commands by typing a simple question. I hope everyone notices and uses it.

      However, It does not solve a bigger problem. Most users are already used to doing things in a particular way. If they know how to do something, they will never use this feature. But in reality, what they don’t know is the method that they have been using is inefficient. The technology which can detect and correct that is yet to arrive :). Current Machine Learning does not have that level of sophistication yet, at least in the context of Office.

      Actually a more powerful technology has been available for decades but nobody uses it. It is called “self learning” 🙂

      I plan to educate the world in using this technology to make them achieve more with less effort.

  3. Interesting post. But IMHO the comparison of a web based office suite (Google Docs) with a thick client application (MS Office) is inherently flawed. A better and fair comparison would have been with Microsoft Office Online. I am sure in that case Google Docs would have emerged as the clear winner. And one final point – Google Docs simple excels at real-time collaboration, something that Microsoft is way behind on (well, unless you buy additional $$ worth of SharePoint, Lync, etc).

    1. Thanks for posting your views.
      It is absolutely a relevant question. My comparison sounds unfair. Do NOT worry. I am about to post the next article in this series which will address your concerns about the flawed comparison. The real question is – who is unfair? Me, Google or Microsoft!
      This is obviously becoming a series of articles. I will address the cost issue as well in the upcoming articles. For now, remember that the Free version of OneDrive also provides online, real-time collaboration (no need for O365, OneDrive or SharePoint). In fact OneDrive itself is a lite version of SharePoint (it has been for years actually).

  4. When people say “I only need these features”, they often mean exactly that. For instance, I know all about multiple column layouts. But I never use them. And for those who don’t know about the advanced features, what they are saying is “I am getting by just fine with what I know”. While those other features may be there, the effort to learn they exist and then the effort to learn how to use them exceeds their usefulness for as infrequently as most people ever have a need for them. For a comparison, here in Seattle it snows enough to make use of 4-wheel-drive only a few days all winter. Having 4WD would be nice on those days, but is not worth the waste of lower gas mileage and higher maintenance the rest of the year , When you say “You are making an authoritative judgment which is based upon ignorance.”, I challenge that your conclusions may be doing the same.

    Your analysis is very detailed. But for legitimate credibility, you need to consider all of the relevant players. IBM Connections Cloud is actually very competitive and even superior in many of the feature comparisons that can be made. When you consider the pricing, far more so. Both IBM and Google are much less expensive than Microsoft. So price will offset the feature differences. Also, consider that IBM is the only service provider of the three who has a 100% interest in meeting the needs of businesses and are not burdened with meeting the needs of the fickle consumer market, which often directly conflicts with the needs of businesses. Microsoft does try to balance the needs of both. However Google Apps for Work is simply the consumer product Google Apps repackaged for business with some additional administrator tools made available. In fact, to properly administer a large organization in GAW, several third party tools are essential. That is not the case for Connections Cloud or O365. Consider familiarizing yourself with IBM Connections Cloud too so that you can actually make an authoritative comparison. Also, make an earnest effort to learn about what advantages GAW has over Microsoft Office 365 and IBM Connections Cloud. (They do exist.) Such a comparison would add much more credibility to the article.

    I think you do a good job of making a deep dive into some detailed differences of the two products and how they differ. But I also think you are focusing on the minutia. There are many other differences far more relevant to the business leader making a decision of which product suite to choose for their company. And ultimately, you may be quite surprised at how little they care about features. Once they get past the question “Is the product good enough for our needs?” they are done with analyzing product. Within the context of the Linkedin discussion https://www.linkedin.com/groups/3724282/3724282-6061062334661554179#commentID_6064992234745389056
    the details you point out are not why companies make the switch.

    1. Hi David
      Thank you for posting detailed comments and objections. I am happy to continue the debate. However, I would like our debate to help all readers. Therefore, I am going to post answers to various issues you have raised as separate blog posts in this series. I will update this comment and add relevant references here as we go along.

      About the LinkedIn discussion, The way decision to buy Office is taken is flawed. That is one of the objectives of my blog. It will become clearer as I post more articles.

      Update 1
      Just posted an article about Google Docs vs. MS Office: “I don’t need all these features”.


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