Office vs Drive: Some thoughts

Office vs DriveLike many schools around the world, our school has used the Microsoft Office trio of Word, Excel and PowerPoint for many years. Most of us know Word, Excel and PowerPoint well enough for our daily tasks. Although some of us might be willing to admit we probably don’t use it to its full capacity, we’ve been using it for so long that we don’t stop to think much about what, if any, alternatives might be out there.

Don’t get me wrong, Microsoft Office is an amazing piece of software. Like you, I’ve grown up with it and watched it evolve over many versions and seen lots of features get added over the years. If you really know what you’re doing with Word, PowerPoint or Excel, you can make documents that are quite amazing in their complexity.

And then along comes GoogleDocs, or Drive as we now call it. From humble beginnings as an online word processor called Writely, the Google Drive system has also evolved and changed and grown over the years. Sure, it’s not the full-blown productivity monster that power-users of Microsoft Office might be used to, but for the great majority of users it has everything they need. I like to think of it as having 90% of the features needed by 90% of the users.  It has most of the stuff you need, and not a lot of the stuff you don’t.  One benefit of this is that it’s far simpler to use.

It would be a little foolish to just think in terms of one over the other. Each has benefits and advantages, as well as limitations and drawbacks. But each is incredibly powerful in its own way. Which is why we still provide you with both.

So when do you choose Microsoft office and when do you choose Google Drive?  Here’s just a few thoughts on that.

In general, I use Google Docs if I want to…

  • create documents really quickly and easily. I spend most of my computer-using day in my web browser with Gmail, Calendar and Drive open in tabs. Because I’m already there, I find it hugely convenient to be able to create new documents in just one click.
  • keep track of the documents I make. I make a LOT of documents each day. The fact that I don’t need to think about where and how I save them, and then being able to get back to them really quickly is a huge timesaver for me.
  • work on a “living document”. For documents that grow and evolve over time, that have edits and updates regularly applied to them, there really is no better choice than using Drive. Just think about how many documents you create that are works in progress. Probably most of them.
  • create a document can be distributed to others without versioning issues. Having a single master version of the document that is always up to date, while still being able to share it with others, is a huge deal!
  • collaborate on a document with others. Being able to work together on a document with others, in real time, regardless of where they might be, is simply amazing and an absolute game-changer in how we can work together to get things done.
  • work on more than one machine. I have a couple of computers at work, a couple at home, and a whole lot of tablets and phone devices. Having my work saved in Drive has made it completely irrelevant as to which machine I choose to work on.

I would use Microsoft Word if I wanted to…

  • Have very specific control over layout and formatting options. Having those options is really nice but I do find that for the majority of the documents I produce I really don’t need 287 font choices, garish page borders, complex tables inside tables and so on. But when I do need such things, Word provides them.
  • Lock down the final copy of a document in order to distribute it to “normal” users. I’d still probably create, edit and evolve the document in Drive, but then I have the option of exporting it out as a Word file at the end if needed.

I’ve always found that the only way that I can effectively evaluate new technologies is to use them regularly to do real work. So when our school moved to Google Docs over a year ago I figured I would try to move everything I usually did in Microsoft Office over the Google Drive, just to see how feasible it really was to work in that environment. I realised I might have to tweak a few habits and accept a few compromises along the way, but I wanted to see if it was doable.

The answer surprised even me. Not only do I find it perfectly feasible to work primarily in the Drive environment, but I can’t actually imagine going back to do it any other way. Seriously. The “compromises” that I thought I’d have to make have been so minimal, while the increased productivity and satisfaction from just being able to get things done faster, easier and more effectively have been enormous.

I won’t be removing Microsoft from my computer anytime soon, because Office it’s still a kind of defacto standard for documents and I never know when I really might need to use it. But I have to tell you, I haven’t needed to even open Microsoft Word now for about 8 months, something that I’ve found both surprising and liberating.

For many years, Microsoft Office was the right tool for the job, primarily because it was the only tool for the job. And the problem with that is when your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. While Office is certainly still a powerful piece of software, it’s often overkill, or worse, it lacks the features that might actually be useful to you.  With Drive, you now have some interesting alternatives. Take the time to evaluate both systems. And next time you reach for a word processor, or a spreadsheet, or a presentation, stop and ask yourself if you’re making that choice out of habit or whether you’re really reaching for the tool most suited for what you want to achieve.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Office vs Drive: Some thoughts by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

19 Replies to “Office vs Drive: Some thoughts”

  1. Thanks for your thoughts about Drive and Office. I, too believed that my move to Drive would be harder than it really was. Since I use OneNote with my team for keeping track of projects and important information, I use it the most of all the Office Suite. If I have to create a spreadsheet, presentation, or document, I go to Drive and share it with my collaborators. I know I’m slowly Driving them along. Do you find yourself starting a project on device and finishing it on another?

    1. All the time. I’m actually kind of amazed at just how device independent I’ve become. My mail, contacts and calendar are all in the Google cloud, as are most of my documents. I have a ton of non-GoogleDoc stuff in DropBox as well (I’d make more use of Drive but I have to work across two (or three) Google accounts and each Drive is sandboxed to each account so that’s kind of annoying. DropBox, being independent and not linked to another login, can go on every machine and be accessible. But I do create most of my documents in Google Drive these days.

      I still think there are some weird behaviours in Drive that I’d like Google to iron out… but it’s getting better all the time.

  2. I agree. I did find Google Docs much less useful at first, but Google has rapidly ramped up the features and now it mostly meets my needs.

    I was just thinking about this recently. When I started working at my current school, I was working at school every weekend because I needed access to files on the server or tools we only had there.

    Now, I rarely have to go in on the weekend. Between Dropbox, Google Drive, and a bit of Sharepoint (in a Mac environment- ugh!) I can do my work from here. That is a huge improvement.

    1. Exactly. I remember I got my daughter onto GoogleDocs after I got divorced. Because she was sometimes staying with me and sometimes with her mum, she would often forget her work at one house and need it at the other. Or not have the files she needed for homework. Or forget to take homework to school because she didn’t plan far enough in advance to know she wouldn’t be going to the other home first before she went back to school. Once she moved all her stuff to Docs, most of those problems went away.

  3. It does not work with Open Document Format! It used to, but since I use LibreOffice (started with StarOffice 12 years ago) most of my documents are in that format. Drive will not open or save. This is a great shame, especially since Google is based upon open software!
    It also lacks a native Linux client, so I cannot use it on my system.
    On my Android tablet I use Textmaker from Softmaker, which does open, edit and save open formats!

    1. You know, I never noticed that. That’s bad that Drive doesn’t export to that format any more. And you’re right, it’s odd considering the open source heritage that Google was built on.

      I guess it take engineering effort to support the conversion and the demand just isn’t there. Since Larry took over as CEO there is a much greater focus on supporting the popular features and support for many of the lesser used features is not great. It’s a shame.

    1. Yes that is annoying! I don’t use sound a lot in presentations, but I tried to recently for one thing and was a bit frustrated by the lack of support for it.

      The lack of audio support in Blogger is equally annoying. You can embed audio files into a Blogger blog (such as a podcast file) but it’s not anywhere as simple as it should be.

  4. Google Apps are the way to go especially in the education setting in which I work. I am the instructional technology coach for a small middle school in Arkansas. We have been a Google Apps for Education district for almost 2 years and the results have been quite dramatic. At first the teachers resisted the new Google Drive format for creating and editing documents, but they are finally realizing the potential. One great feature for education is that it is totally FREE. Microsoft Office cost a ton of money to keep up a school district license. Once the teachers and students began to use the collaborative features of Google Drive they have seen the light.

    Michael Graham
    Author of Google Apps Meets Common Core
    http://goo.gl/1DXNW

  5. I’ve been experimenting with an MS Office 365 subscription for a month now. It’s surprisingly similar to Google Drive/Docs. It also has the advantage of providing easy switching between the lighter MS web apps and the heavy duty desktop apps. Nonetheless, I don’t expect to make the switch back permanent. I work in Chrome 90% of the time and Google’s web-apps are still significantly quicker and less buggy than Microsoft’s.

  6. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Drive and MS (Word).
    Actually, you stance doesn’t make sense to me. I understand your move from Word to Drive, but the idea that you then still need Word undermines your urge to use Docs. It’s way easier to use only one tool for writing – if possible – in that it makes you familiar with the tool. After af while not using say Word, you loose the feeling for it and the capability of exploiting its functionalities. May you don’t but as a piece of advice you argument fall short to my opinion.
    I’m annoyed with some of the shortcomings in Docs – but I’d rather live with them than go back and forth between the two of them.
    I’m not saying that using both doesn’t make sense for you – only that it doesn’t for me.

    1. Hi Ove,

      Good points. I should point out that this blog post was basically a copy of an email I sent to our staff recently to help them better understand the possibilities of Drive, and to try and encourage them to use it more. Although we became a Google school last year, most of our staff continue to use MS tools out of habit. My email (and this post) was an attempt to politely and tactfully suggest they take a closer look at what Drive offers. If I was being honest and not having to be tactful and nice about it, it would have read more like “Stop emailing those stupid Word documents to me! They are just cluttering up my email, are out of date as soon as you send them to me, and I just hate having to load up that bloated piece of crapware called Office every time I have to view them. Get with the program and start using a tool that makes sense!”

      But i can’t say that. 😉

      I guess it’s because we are still in transition. Personally I rarely use Word, Excel and PowerPoint, but we still provide it as part of our standard software suite. If it were up to me I would discontinue the MS Office suite because, as you say, having it (and paying for it) defeats the whole purpose of moving to Google Drive in the first place. I agree with you.

      Being a pure Drive environment would be great and I think perfectly feasible. To me, it has all the features I need… if it didn’t but it was my only option, I would just learn to live within the limitations. So I’m with you, I’d rather stick to one environment and live within its options rather than trying to flip between them.

      Unfortunately, part of the culture at my school is to never take things away, so we add new things, but never remove the old ones. The end result is a degree of confusion and a lack of cohesiveness in the tools we all use, but hey, that’s the way it is. I think the best way for a school to be a pure Drive environment is to be a new school that has no legacy software to hold it back.

      In a perfect world, things would be different…

  7. To Ove Christensen’s point, sometimes working with both is necessary. I use Google Drive for everything except my doctoral dissertation. I still backup to Google Drive, but must continue using Word because of all of the formatting that ultimately gets lost if I were to write my dissertation in a Google document.

    1. Hi Ben,

      Never having written a doctoral dissertation I have no idea what special formatting is required, but as always, people should be fre to use whatever tool makes sense for them.

      Good luck with it.

  8. I like the thought process here of “90% of the features needed by 90% of the users”. I will try that with Windows 8 tablets vs iPad next.

    1. Agreed itteacherdubai, Office 365 achieves similar benefits. My main problem with it so far has been slower, more buggy performance. I like Office 365’s aesthetics, but I find the Google interface more user friendly. With sharing, for example, Office 365 requires 5 steps – File/Share/Share with People/Enter Email Address/Done, while Google Drive requires only 3 steps – Share/Enter Email Address/Done. Drive also enables a wider range of visibility settings. How do you think the two offerings compare as web apps?

    2. We tried to offer Microsoft the chance to win our business when we made the cloud decision. We were actually keen for them to woo us over to 365 because, frankly, the integration would have been simpler.

      To say that the Microsoft Certified Partners we worked with were hopeless would be an understatement. They did not know the features of the competition, and to be honest they didn’t really even know the features of their own product. They were unable to show us a working demo, unable to answer our technical questions, and to be blunt, dealing with them was a total waste of time. We gave them many, many chances to get it right and show us what they could do for us but in the end we had absolutely no faith that they could deliver a working solution that would do what we wanted, much less do what they said it could do.

      We decided to go the Google path, and although it required more work to get it configured with our existing Microsoft backend, we have a solution that works, and that we know we can build on.

      Microsoft unfortunately just could not deliver on their promises. Which is somewhat of a common theme for them these days.

  9. I’m using Windows Live Edu with my students, this gives them access to email and the Office apps out of school (via SkyDrive) and the full MS Office in school without the need to upload and download. We also have the added bonus of OneNote which is an awesome educational tool. They are able to share files and folders with teachers and I love being able to embed the html for documents on my website, which allows truly live documents which are readable on all devices.
    I have a Google Drive account, but I find myself using it much less than I used to. Microsoft still have a few kinks in the system, but I think they’ve made huge improvements. Our district hasn’t gone to 365 yet, but I’m hoping they will.

That's all well and good, but what do YOU think?