Outside of the open source ecosystem, the rise and rise of Google's G Suite has posed the first real challenge to the market incumbent: Microsoft Office, offering a sleek range of alternatives to the incumbent productivity software monolith.
For many though the bone of contention comes down to spreadsheets. Excel was long the go-to spreadsheet and management tool for maintaining and programming databases and running statistical functions. Since its first edition in 1987 Excel has supported macro programming, and in the early 90s it really picked up in popularity, ultimately replacing the legacy Lotus spreadsheet application Lotus 1-2-3.
Being bundled with the mighty Windows operating system, of course, helped.
Then Google first released its cloud-based Docs word processor in 2006, with Sheets available on a limited basis in the same year. Now it is the default option for many individual users and plenty of businesses too.
So after that brief history lesson, what’s the best option for you? While they share a lot of surface-level features there are some pretty big pros to each application. Here we break them down for you.
Microsoft has had a long time to hone and tune the code that has made Excel such a lasting success for casual and expert users. If you’re using an older computer or have Windows bundled onto it, it’s likely Excel will be where you learned to use a spreadsheet. It's also a program which comes with a long heritage of guidance and tutorials available on the web.
There are a wide range of data analytics tools on the market – and Excel is one of them. Out of Sheets and Excel, it’s more likely you’ll want to use Microsoft’s option for crunching lots of data. Excel can support over a million rows and has a whole host of advanced options for expert users.
You can also learn how to put together a simple database for Excel on Lifewire here, and for more complex data crunching from an enterprise-friendly viewpoint, there’s a good blog from the Excel team here.
Microsoft eventually caught up with Google by offering a cloud version of its product (though the integration is arguably less swish) with Office 365 in 2011, but if you need an individual application rather than a browser-based offering, Excel is the way to go.
Automation and workflow management
You can do all sorts with Excel, with some self-professed fanboys arguing that it’s possible to manage your entire life in the software.
Dialling back a little from that extreme, it’s also probably the application of choice for workflow management and automation, with the use of custom logic macros. They are not the easiest thing to master but there are users that seem to swear by using Excel to automate tedious or repetitive tasks, so putting in the effort to learn can lead to big rewards down the line.
If you put in the time to learn Excel properly and find that it’s extremely your bag, then there’s a ready-made community of spreadsheet enthusiasts at your fingertips, including those who compete in an Excel tournament, with a $10,000 cash prize. Although this certainly will not be for everybody...
Like all the Google apps, the browser-based Sheets application is built with cloud in mind. It’ll save your work automatically, be available across devices and supports concurrent users for easy collaboration. More recently Microsoft put its products in the cloud too with Excel Online syncing to OneDrive, but Google Sheets – as long as you’re online – will instantly sync across all of your Google devices.
This is where Google really... excels. Google has made collaboration very simple and effective in Sheets. Microsoft recently introduced this feature to Excel Online but it’s nowhere near the level Google Sheets allows for. Groups can work in a single Sheets document all at once, and they won’t necessarily even need Google accounts to do so, allowing for external contributors to be brought into a spreadsheet.
Cross-app support for Google
Google Sheets will allow you to pull in data from your other Google apps as well as RSS feeds and the company’s powerful Translate tool. And the ImportXML feature means you can take data from any website and put it in Sheets, where it’s then yours to play with – handy guide here.
Other Google services that can be imported include Calendar, Drive and Gmail via the Apps Script - a Sheets addon that delivers custom menus and sidebars plus support for some third-party services too.
The G Suite (Gmail, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Drive, Calendar) is free for individual users so this might serve SMEs starting without getting involved in any of the business plans.
For more storage, users and support there is G Suite for businesses, which starts at £3.30 per user per month for 30GB and £6.60 for unlimited storage.
There are three ways to pay for an Office 365 licence, and that’s either for home for business or for enterprise.
Office 365 for business starts at £7.90 per user per month for all the applications plus five phones, five tablets, and five PCs or Macs per user, 1TB of cloud storage and 24/7 phone and web support.
Home packages start at £59.99 per year for Office 365 Personal, including all the applications you’d expect (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook, OneNote).
Naturally what you should plump for depends on your business needs. For handling extremely large data sets and putting PC performance behind the software Microsoft will be the winner.
Cloud-native collaboration tools and the seamless integration with Google services will appeal to other organisations. Ultimately, you’ll have to apply the pros of each to what your business requires.
While that’s the case for now, Google is intent on cornering all the markets that it can – so the big data crunching of Excel might not give Microsoft the edge for that purpose forever, especially as systems in general migrate over to the cloud.