The usefulness (or not) of cloud office application suite reviews

Reading the review that purports to compare and contrast the competing cloud-based office application suites from Microsoft, Google, and Zoho, I wonder about the usefulness or even the feasibility of attempting to write such a report at this point in the evolution of cloud technology.

Although it’s true that Google Apps has been around for several years, its competitors are still relatively new. As such, I don’t think it is possible to provide a realistic assessment of just how well a broad spectrum of cloud-based products perform in production. We can certainly review Office 365 since its debut last June and discuss how well Microsoft has delivered cloud-based versions of Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync. We might quibble at the choice of Microsoft plans and point to the two rather public outages that the service has suffered recently. We can compare the approach taken by Zoho to those used by Google or Microsoft and debate whether a free version of the software is worth having (of course it is, but not when a company starts to grow and support becomes important). But we still can’t discuss important topics that CIOs ponder as they decide which cloud-based suite to select and separate the reality from the undoubted hype that surrounds this topic.

For example, any application can have teething problems soon after it goes into production. I think that this is what has happened with Office 365 in its two recent outages. The more important thing is how well the application performs over a sustained period. In other words, will the oft-cited Service Level Agreement of 99.9% be met over a year, two years, or three to five years? And how will the support team function over that period in terms of its ability to communicate promptly to reassure tenants if outages occur, how fast will they fix problems, and will the fixes that are applied cause any knock-on effects for customers such as requiring the deployment of a hot fix on client PCs? I think that hard time-proven experience of an application operating under the stress of production is far more important than the initial impressions gained by a reviewer who might arrive at their conclusions after a week or so.

Another issue that comes to mind is how the cloud-based application suites will evolve over time. The nature of technology is that it never stays static for long and its creators have an almost unstoppable urge to add new features or tweak existing code. I suspect that the cloud-based applications will be no different to their on-premises cousins in the race to add features so the question then swings into mind as to how well the vendors will manage evolution for their tenants. For example, if we look at the current version of Office 365, we can see that Outlook 2010 is the client that exposes the maximum feature set from Exchange Online. Features such as MailTips and retention policies remain invisible if you use Outlook 2007. These features won’t make a lot of difference to many tenants who will happily continue to use Outlook 2007. But what happens when Office 365+2 versions appears (is that Office 367 or Office 365.2?). Will Microsoft remove support for Outlook 2007 or require Outlook 2012 (or whatever it is then) to connect to the cloud? I don’t think that they will, but the thought of any forced client upgrade makes CIOs wince.

You can argue that Google or any other browser-based application provider has the advantage here as they don’t have to deal with the complexities of a feature-rich “fat:” client. This is true as the task of the application provider is much simpler when they exert full control over both client and server. But Google has not been immune to criticism as it has changed the user interface of its applications over time, sometimes almost seemingly at a whim. Individual users will accept the change, especially if they are (like me) a consumer of Google’s free services and therefore don’t have a vote. Those who pay for the service might have a different view. Companies like consistency and predictably because it makes help desk support easier. Changes that therefore make sense to a developer can cause confusion all round if not flagged well in advance.

I exclude task-oriented "getting started" type articles such as that recently published on by Zac Wiggy because these articles actually include some useful information that tells people what they have to do to even begin starting to use cloud applications. Of course, I might not agree with the author's conclusions, but that's an argument for another day.

It would be nice if we could review the cloud-based application suites in depth but I think this might be a fool's errand. The suites haven’t been around long enough for all their faults and weaknesses to be exposed and their strengths to be understood and exploited. For now therefore we must be satisfied with the reviews that do appear, usually in the form of a checkmark-based feature comparison across the suites. Not satisfying, but all we can do until we really understand what we are dealing with..

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