A few months ago I mentioned Office 365, Microsoft’s subscription-based and cloud-integrated version of Office. Now I spend a lot of money on applications, but when it comes to software I’m not using every day (or often enough to justify spending more money on), I don’t see any reason to upgrade to the latest version unless I’m either truly in need of the latest features or truly enchanted by the more polished user experience that is usually being offered with newer versions of software. With only a cursory glance at the software, it didn’t seem necessary for me to provide an Office 365 versus Office 2013 type of study. From my view, Microsoft just seemed to be catching up with Google Docs in the way that it integrates its office suite of applications with the cloud. What else was there to say about it? Even so, I felt the service was undeniably valuable for those who regularly use Microsoft Office as their primary productivity suite.
Has my position changed since I first passed over Office 365? Not entirely, but it’s now much more informed. Having only glanced at the latest implementation of Office back in January, I continued using Google Docs as my main productivity and collaboration platform, not truly considering the full potential of using Office 365 versus Office 2013. Microsoft now truly offers the type of synergistic functionality I’ve been enjoying with Google Docs for some time. I’ve gotten so used to taking advantage of Google’s free (some would say “personal data-gathering” rather than “free”) offerings that until now I just didn’t see the need to make the jump back to Microsoft. The majority of what I do is cut, copy, and paste, and for those purposes I probably don’t even need to use Google’s offerings. There are a lot of other solutions I could use, perhaps even something that involves free/libre open source software (FLOSS) such as OpenOffice. Yet even as I consider what I’m suggesting, I recall the many occasions I’ve gone the FLOSS route only to reach a remarkably well-developed cul-de-sac. And as propertied as that end of the street may be, I typically find myself having to seek out another pathway in order to complete the journey of my work.
FLOSS office suites are great for many purposes, but getting any real amount of collaborative tasks accomplished over the Web using free software usually requires a scenario involving more than one complicated application. Google Docs currently enables me to work on documents with others in a nearly seamless manner, though it’s not quite as polished an experience as Microsoft Office. In other words, it works well enough for my purposes. If I was a regular Microsoft Office user today, I’d be ecstatic to find that Office 365 has reached and perhaps surpassed the level of collaborative value that Google Docs has been offering for some time now. I’m now taking a closer look at Redmond’s latest offerings, and though I recognized Office 365‘s value before, I’m beginning to more fully appreciate the product’s evolution — and how worthwhile an upgrade both Office 365 and Office 2013 offer, particularly for those already accustomed to using the productivity suite.
Office 365 Versus Office 2013: Familiarity and Comfort
Before I run my Office 365 versus Office 2013 comparison, let me go over a few areas I believe Microsoft’s office software trumps its competitors. I’ll begin with familiarity. Who can dispute the familiarity of Microsoft Office, the standard-bearer in office productivity suites for over two decades? Unless you spend most of your days in Chalmun’s Cantina, chances are you’ve at one time or another opened a Word document, an Excel spreadsheet, or a PowerPoint presentation. Microsoft Office is familiar to the vast majority of computer users, and as at least one Forrester researcher recently pointed out, will continue to be the primary office software for millions of PC users. The same researcher also indicated that Microsoft needs to deliver Office to tablets (and sooner rather than later), a point I wholeheartedly agree with. As I said earlier this year, if Office 365 makes its way to the iPad, I’m a subscriber.
There’s the old saying, “familiarity breeds contempt.” The generally accepted meaning behind the saying is that we lose respect for the people or the things we have the most experience with. I used to be a heavy advocate of Microsoft products, having grown up with DOS and Windows, and I still test out everything the company delivers and intend to continue doing so. Several years ago, however, I strayed toward the Apple side of things. This culminated in my purchase of a Mac Pro just over five years ago. The overall user experience Apple had to offer at the time seemed more attractive than Windows Vista. Was I unhappy with the familiar? Possibly. It’s often the unfamiliar and mysterious “other” that one desires most. I didn’t feel contempt for Microsoft — I still loved Microsoft at the time, and still hunger for more of the company’s products to test — but my overall experience with its products back in 2008 had reached the point where it wasn’t nearly as satisfying as it had once been.
That doesn’t mean that Microsoft had anything less to offer than Apple. Apple’s offerings were different (apologies for bringing to mind an old marketing phrase), and more suited to my needs at the time. The more I dabbled with Mac OS X and iOS, the more I moved away from Windows Vista and Windows Mobile (the latter being the precursor to Windows Phone). But Apple didn’t offer everything I needed. As much as I’ve enjoyed my time dealing with what was once a relatively unfamiliar platform, I must admit I’ve missed a few of the tools I’d grown accustomed to using on Windows, including Office. I only turned toward Google Docs because Apple didn’t offer the type of online collaboration platform that I was seeking, but Google was. Google Docs also offered an experience that resembled Office enough to suit my needs, more or less, and as the years have passed I’ve grown used to the way Google Docs works — hiccups and all. With Office 365, Microsoft is offering the type of interactivity between applications and the cloud that I wish it had offered years ago. There would’ve been no reason for me to rely on Google to meet my needs if Office 365 had looked as good as it is beginning to look to me now.
Regardless of whether familiarity breeds contempt or not, one thing is undeniable: familiarity brings with it a level of comfort. Both Office 365 and Office 2013 offer the comfort of familiarity, and Microsoft is working hard to maintain that for its users, preferring to work more on polishing the user experience of its Office products than to introduce unneeded features. More on that in a bit.
Office 365 Versus Office 2013: Research and Experience
Microsoft may be perceived as following Google’s lead in the online collaborative platform space, but the fact is that both Office 2013 and Office 365 have been a long time in the making. Since Office is one of Microsoft’s bread-and-butter products, the company took its sweet time developing the latest iteration(s) of what is probably the most-used software in the world. With the resources to take the time improving its product to meet the needs of its customers and with the opportunity to watch how consumers and businesses collaborate using online productivity suites, Microsoft may have developed better products over all than its competitors. Both Office 2013 and Office 365 clearly benefit from Microsoft’s vast resources and years of research and experience in the areas of office software development and cloud computing solutions.
Prior versions of Office weren’t as seamlessly connected to the cloud as the latest versions, but it’s not like Microsoft hadn’t been experimenting with Web-based applications while working on the next iterations. Office 365 is a direct descendant of Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), an earlier foray into cloud-based services that was aimed primarily at business users. And even those who’ve never used Office know that Microsoft’s Xbox platform is one of the most Web-connected products in the world, offering an interactive experience that provided a type of testing ground for the company’s research and development department(s). So although it was slow to perfect the collaborative aspects of its Office products, Microsoft has excelled at implementing cloud-based services for quite some time.
Office 2013 similarly benefits from all this research. The more “traditional” version of Office looks and behaves in a manner quite similar to its forebears while also being more connected to the cloud. Yet although Office 2013 is more cloud-based than previous versions, it still utilizes the cloud somewhat less than Office 365. As mentioned before, Office 365 is descended from other cloud-based services Microsoft introduced some years back. Office 2010, on the other hand, kept it cozy by remaining a product that wouldn’t alienate existing users while gradually introducing more features that took advantage of the increasing number of broadband Internet connections. With the release of Office 2013 last year, Microsoft has somehow maintained the same level of familiarity of former versions of Office while moving more toward the cloud-based Office 365.
In many respects, both Office 365 and Office 2013 are indistinguishable. But some differences remain. For one, subscribers to Office 365 are able to stream full instances of Office to computers on demand, without installing the software permanently to the computer. In other words, Office 365 is a portable version of Office due to its reliance on the cloud. This can be particularly useful for anyone visiting friends and family who don’t have Office installed on their computers, or for an employee who occasionally hops from one workstation to another. Office 365 also offers installation on five different Windows or Mac machines (though a new version Office for Mac isn’t scheduled to arrive until next spring). Office 2013, on the other hand, is generally intended to be installed on a single computer (though volume licenses are available).
Office 365 Versus Office 2013: Greater Compatibility
Microsoft Office has been the primary productivity suite in both enterprises and homes for generations, and each new version of the software offers the best compatibility with existing Office documents. Within a week of Office 365‘s launch, a billion Office documents were already being stored on SkyDrive, Microsoft’s cloud-based storage solution (which is integrated with Office). Billions more — heck, kazillions more — are offline, waiting to be imported into the latest version of Office. Though competitors are always working to mimic Office’s features, sometimes they fail. If your word processing software doesn’t produce documents that are easy to open in Microsoft Office, then your word processing software is useless to all but a very small minority of people.
FLOSS is wonderful in theory, but often cumbersome in practice. Don’t get me wrong, I have a great appreciation for the open source community. The fact that the community exists provides the competition that motivates innovation. But in my experience, many open source equivalents to commercial offerings don’t quite meet my needs. It’s not that they don’t offer all of the features I need, as many FLOSS applications match their commercial equivalents feature-by-feature. It’s more a problem of execution. Sometimes the open source offerings simply aren’t skillfully designed, at least not until the software has fully matured (by which time the applications have been shaped by several generations of user feedback). If an application is developed to replace an existing one, it must at least be as easy to use as the one it is replacing. Office applications have been one of the fundamental drivers of computer purchases for decades, and nobody wants to face an entirely new office productivity paradigm.
And why not? Because having to face a new learning curve is inefficient, and inefficiency is only fun for politicians trying to slow down the progress of a bill through Congress. It’s already difficult enough to interpret the US Constitution without having to worry about the integrity of the document, which has been reproduced in various manners over the centuries since it was first written. Imagine if our only remaining copy of the Constitution was in a digital file format that no longer was able to be read because of software incompatibilities. Fortunately, Microsoft has addressed the unlikely potential of something like this occurring by adopting an open standard specification for its file format in recent editions of Office.
Both Office 365 and Office 2013 offer to consumers familiarity and comfort, the benefit of being developed from years of experience and research, and potentially greater compatibility with existing documents. These terms may seem like catchwords we’ve all seen before, but they’re not headed for the waste bin of overuse (as terms like “game changer”) because these terms are not hyperbolic or misleading. They are factual. Lots of people use Office, and lots of people are comfortable with the software. Microsoft has had not only the benefit of experience but the resources to take the best of what’s out there and build a product that has the potential to meet consumer expectations better than any other product its competitors have to offer. It is nearly an added bonus that Microsoft introduces solutions that ensure compatibility with aging documents (which should be a requirement for all companies’ software, though unfortunately it is not).
Office 365 Versus Office 2013: Pricing Differences
I’ve told you what I think differentiates Microsoft Office from its competition and what the main differences between Office 365 and Office 2013 are, but you’re probably wondering what, if any, other differences exist specifically between Office 365 and Office 2013. The main difference has to do with the pricing. Office 365 offers a subscription model, where Office 2013 is offered as a standalone, pay-once-and-you-own-it-forever purchase. There have been many examinations of this pricing structure, some researched better than others (I love this Computer World price calculator, which compares various pricing scenarios). Many will tell you it’s simple to determine which product to go with, including the author of the video I’m including with this post.
The video is a fine outline of some of the differences between Office 365 and Office 2013, but it’s misleading to believe that it’s as simple as choosing the option that you’re guessing will be most economical over time. Even Computer World admits that its pricing calculator doesn’t take into account the additional applications the Home Premium edition of Office 365 offers in comparison to its most comparable equivalent, Office Home and Student 2013. When it comes down to it, nobody can tell you which version will be most economical for you in the long-run. If you choose to buy the least expensive option, you’ll be taking a gamble that you won’t need the applications or the functionality available with more expensive options.
What’s more important than price are the actual functional differences between the two products. As mentioned previously, the more traditional Office 2013 is the direct descendant of the previous version of the suite, Office 2010. It has interface improvements (including a more Metro-style look and feel), improved integration with third-party applications recently acquired by Microsoft (including Skype and Yammer), updated support for certain file formats, an improved touch (and pen) experience, and is more integrated into the cloud. Over all, it’s a more polished experience than Office 2010. In fact, one of the Word 2013 team’s driving philosophies was precisely that:
We will continue to focus on polishing existing user experiences/scenarios over “adding new features,” driving ourselves to make improvements in the things that users already do every day
Office 365 was originally planned for business users but now home users are also invited to the club, and for a very reasonable entry fee (and if you’re a student you can take advantage of an exceptional offer). You get a few extras with a subscription to Office 365, including 20 gigs of SkyDrive storage and 60 minutes a month of Skype service. These are all fine added values if you’re going to be using them, but the main thing to consider, to the best of your ability to forecast, is how you will using Office in the coming years.
Office 365 versus Office 2013: which have you used, and which do you think is the better choice?