Over the last couple of years, I've fielded a number of inquiries from Forrester clients who are trying to decide whether their company should move their email and other collaboration workloads into the cloud via Google Apps for Business or Microsoft Office 365. This conversation has gained so much momentum that I recently did a podcast with my colleague Mike Gualtieri on the subject, will host a teleconference covering the topic on February 26, and will soon publish a report detailing answers to five of the common questions that we get about online collaboration and productivity suites (which include Office 365, Google Apps, and IBM SmartCloud for Social Business). Fueling this extended conversation are business and IT leaders' deliberations over one question: Is there a right or wrong in selecting one vendor's offering over the other? I'll use a typical analyst hedge to answer: It depends.

Fundamentally, Microsoft and Google provide their clients elements of the four basic collaboration workloads: email, teaming, real-time communications, and social computing. The differences in the portfolios, however, reflect the unique origins of the offerings and the divergent visions of the vendors. Office 365 is indicative of the delicate balance Microsoft is attempting to strike between embracing an online services model while maintaining on-premises software which serves a sizeable customer base. Google Apps embodies the Mountain View, CA, search giant's belief in a web-based services world in which the vast majority of business applications are tuned to the browser and multiple mobile operating systems. The choice for business and IT leaders looking at these two offerings then boils down to how these different views of collaboration technology align with the organization's collaboration (and broader business application) strategy. In our study of this topic over the past 24 months, we've found this alignment typically boils down to:

  • Organizational appetite for "radical" change. No matter which solution an organization picks, moving collaboration workloads to an online service creates change in the IT organization as IT staffers are freed to tackle new tasks. However, when organizations move to Google Apps, they often do so to embrace a shift in how their employees work. Many organizations we've talked to about their Google Apps migration point to Gmail and Google Drive as catalysts for changes in how employees locate information, interact with colleagues, and create documents. By contrast, Office 365 opens doors for new ways of working, such as mobile access, through interfaces — such as Outlook — which have the look, feel, and level of functionality to which employees have grown accustomed.
  • Business dependence on integration into on-premises applications. Many organizations have invested heavily in tying together their business and collaboration applications to streamline workflows and contextualize business processes — think CRM integration into email to simplify issue resolution as an example. Microsoft strives to perpetuate this capability in Office 365 by making traditional connectors — like Business Connectivity Services in SharePoint — available in their online offering. Most of the Google Apps clients we've talked to have foregone such deep integrations into on-premises systems, instead choosing to focus their integration efforts on tying Google Apps into other cloud services (more on that in a moment).
  • IT and security requirements for different cloud delivery models. Office 365 was designed to ease Microsoft's clients' way into the cloud. Organizations can choose between Microsoft's multi-tenant environment and its dedicated options, as well as split workloads to allow for some employees to receive services from the cloud and others to access services from on-premises servers. This approach has appealed to many organizations concerned about customization in a purely multi-tenant environment or the scalability of multi-tenant services. Google does not provide such options for its customers — its service is delivered exclusively from a multi-tenant environment. It has made some concessions to client and regulator concerns about multi-tenancy: for example, US government clients can opt into the Google Apps for Government service which isolates government data in a FISMA-certified data center.
  • Business and IT interest in an extended cloud application strategy. As Google's enterprise collaboration business has grown, so to has the broader ecosystem of online business applications. And the vendors providing this broad spectrum of applications have created APIs and native integrations that allow clients to transfer information between this disparate services. Thus, we've entered a world in which enterprises can easily acquire a seamlessly integrated portfolio of business and collaboration applications from vendors like Google, salesforce.com, Workday, and Box. Microsoft, on the other hand, is at the beginning of this journey and we've yet to see how well they will play in this environment that isn't predicated on Microsoft's operating systems (be it PC or mobile) and browsers.

So, as business and IT leaders look at these offerings, it's important to start with the understanding of the organizational goals and what you need to enable the workforce to do in order to achieve it. Microsoft and Google each have their respective strengths and weaknesses as online providers. Those qualities should only be assessed in light of the business's needs and not in a vacuum. What are your thoughts? How are you evaluating these collaboration technology portfolios?