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I was a long-time customer of Google Apps for Business. I used it for larryseltzer.com, which I use for both business and personal reasons. Back when I switched from conventional hosting and POP/SMTP email to Google Apps, it was a great deal -- you could get all the basic features for free. This included Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Sites and Google Docs, and it was all searchable using Google's top-notch engine.
A lot has changed since then. Google Apps has gotten better, although not markedly so. The competition, which is Microsoft, has not stood still. In fact, Microsoft's cloud product, Office 365, is clearly more powerful and sophisticated than Google Apps for business needs, especially large businesses.
I recently laid out the case for leaving Google Apps for Office 365. Here, I'm sharing the lessons I learned while making that migration.
Migrating my five users -- three real ones and a couple of test ones -- took about five days. The first day was consumed with standard and necessary things such as migrating DNS servers; the second involved working around an obscure bug I encountered. Most of the rest of the time was spent migrating email, contacts and calendars.
After leaving Google Apps, I learned a lot about what's possible with Office 2013, its Web apps in various browsers, and mobile support. Mobile is especially complicated. In the end, once I got past deciding which company was being more duplicitous, it became clear to me that Microsoft offers better mobile support than Google. Microsoft still has some big mobile support holes, but it does appear to be working on most of them.
Some people will disagree with me on this, but I think Google Sites is not a useful product, and compared to Microsoft's SharePoint it's so small as to be barely visible. The differences between Google Apps (formerly Google Docs) and Microsoft Office are not as great as they once were, but they're still substantial.
Am I glad I left Google Apps? Yes, even though I ran into some problems in migrating. I suspect no migration like this ever goes completely as planned. Read on to learn from all of my stumbles -- and happy discoveries.
Microsoft needs to coordinate Windows accounts and Office 365 accounts better. More than once I ran into problems related to the distinction between my Windows account and my Office 365 account. Windows accounts, formerly known as Live (and Passport before that), are a distinct identity system from that used for Office 365.
Some of my migration problems were due to the unusual situation I apparently presented: My Windows ID was the same personal email address that I was using on the Office 365 domain. This confusion caused a 24-hour delay in getting the Office 365 domain properly set up and I was only able to do that with help from Microsoft support. I had to cancel my Windows ID and create a new one and even then, I had the impression that the system is unequipped for this circumstance and that the operations people had to do some sort of manual override.
There are many other circumstances where you'd think you could use your Office 365 ID instead of your Windows ID: Logging into a Windows 8 system or Windows Phone (pictured), for example. But unless the Windows system is on a managed domain, you'll need to use a Windows ID to log in and then log in separately to Office 365. This isn't a major pain, but it feels wrong and some users undoubtedly will experience the same confusion I did.
The Windows Phone smartphone operating system does a good job of handling Office 365 apps and the Office Hub. (Hub is an app that allows users access to documents in SkyDrive and SharePoint for minor edits.) Trying to use Office 365 on iOS devices is, unsurprisingly, not as easy. But it's not as hard as you might think. First, Exchange ActiveSync gives you full access to your email, calendar and contacts in standard iOS apps. The same is true of Android and BlackBerry devices. But iOS users also get a SharePoint Newsfeed App and will also get a SkyDrive Pro app this summer. Somewhat surprisingly, Windows 8 has lagged in Office 365 support and will get a SkyDrive Pro app at the same time as iOS.
Microsoft also seems to have put extra effort in for iOS users in the browser. Pictured is my Office 365 email on a Samsung Galaxy S 4 and an iPhone 5. Android users get the old Outlook Web Access interface, which isn't all that usable on a desktop PC. iOS users get the modern Outlook.com mobile interface. This follows even for Chrome on both operating systems: Chrome on iOS gets the new interface, Chrome on Android gets the old interface.
Microsoft does make Lync, OneNote and SkyDrive apps for Android and there are many third-party apps to fill the gaps in, for example, support for SharePoint. And Microsoft recently announced improvements in its Web apps on Android tablets to allow document editing through mobile Chrome browser support. But for now, browser support in Android is bottom rung.
Officially, SharePoint 2013 supports iOS 5.0 or later and Android 4.0 or later. Video play requires iOS 6.0 and Android 4.1, and iOS 5.0 support for Office Web Apps is "limited."
One of the precipitating events for my decision to migrate from Google Apps to Office 365 was Google's decision to restrict Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) support to paying customers. This rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. The alternatives Google suggests -- IMAP, CalDAV and CardDAV -- are not only harder to configure, but they don't work all that well. Google's CalDAV implementation, for example, doesn't let you invite another user to a calendar event.
Even the fact that I was a paying customer didn't stop me from being affected -- Microsoft changed the Windows 8/RT Mail, Calendar and Contacts apps to blacklist all Google users from EAS access. Microsoft provides alternative means for syncing email and contacts to Windows 8/RT. For Calendar, Microsoft's official advice is to use Outlook.com instead.
Both Google and Microsoft came across as petty and unhelpful in this episode -- but I wasn't prepared to dump both of them. I decided I wanted to have EAS support and Office 365 was the way to get it. Since I set up Office 365, I have connected from Windows 7 and 8, Windows Phone, an iPad and iPhone, Android 2.3 and 4.2 phones and an Android 4.1 tablet. No problems.
There was an unexpected bonus: EAS provides some basic mobile device management (MDM) tools and Office 365 lets you use them. You can make users set complex passcodes, force a device wipe after a set number of failed attempts to connect, and use other measures to improve security. These are the kinds of security features users love to hate, but short of a full-blown MDM product subscription this can do some good. (To be fair, Google Apps lets administrators remotely wipe devices that have been connected through EAS.)
There are lots of automated tools for migrating data from Google Apps to Office 365, including Dell's Quest OnDemand Migration for Email and Agile IT's AgileAscend. You should consider using one of these products -- even if you're switching over just a few users like I was -- or it will just take too long.
Thinking way too much of my own skills, I assumed that the process would be time-consuming but not all that challenging. The migration took me more than two days -- although I was working on other things at the same time – and I'm still cleaning up small problems it caused.
If you look up migration techniques on the Internet you'll see a lot of bad advice, mostly about using IMAP. Fortunately, you'll have to go this route only if you're one of the grandfathered-in free Google Apps users. If you're a Google Apps for Business customer, you have Exchange ActiveSync support for access to your calendars, contacts and email, and this is the secret to a much more straightforward migration. If you haven't been using Google Apps Migration For Microsoft Outlook and Google Apps Sync For Microsoft Outlook to access your Google Apps email, calendar and contacts, now is the time to set it up.
There are two ways to proceed: In Outlook, export all the data from each account to a PST file. Then, after connecting to your Office 365 account, import the PST file. The second way is to connect to both the Google and Microsoft accounts from the same instance of Outlook and drag and drop the content from the former to the latter.
It sounds so simple, and eventually it worked, but it wasn't as easy as it sounded. First, I tried the second, drag-and-drop method. But I was dealing with some very large accounts with many gigabytes of data, and Outlook was not up to the task. I don't know what caused it, but whenever I tried either drag and drop or copy and paste, Outlook would become unresponsive. It might have been that the migration was actually being performed and only the UI was unresponsive, and that if I left it for many hours it would complete, but I decided that wasn't a reasonable use of my time.
The other method worked better, although Outlook also dislikes very large PSTs and becomes unresponsive when importing them. I got better results by creating partial PSTs -- just the calendar, just the contacts, and different parts of the email -- and importing them one at a time.
The main problem I was left with -- and this is a common problem -- is duplicate entries in the contacts. No matter how often you tell the import program not to import duplicates it does it anyway (pictured).
In my earlier story on the business case for migrating from Google Apps to Office 365, I criticized both cloud products for their file storage tools: Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive Pro, respectively. Both need storage pooling and user quotas. But in the end, SkyDrive Pro is more disappointing.
The first thing to know about SkyDrive Pro is that it's not a professional version of the consumer SkyDrive offering, but a recasting of SharePoint MySites. Therefore it doesn't interoperate with the consumer version of SkyDrive, nor does it work with SkyDrive apps for iOS or Android, although there is Mac support. And if you have Windows Phone, you will have access to your SkyDrive Pro data. Check out Microsoft's "What's the difference between SkyDrive and SkyDrive Pro?" for more.
One of Gmail's "innovations" was to abandon the traditional hierarchical folder model. In Gmail, you don't move or copy messages to folders -- you give them labels. The labels themselves can be hierarchical, but the big difference is that one individual message can have more than one label. If you think of labels as folders, this means that a message can exist in more than one folder. Another one of Gmail's departures from conventional email is archiving, which takes a message out of view, but leaves it available for search. I was never quite sure over the years how, but frequently Gmail would archive a message when I didn't intend it. If I didn't know what to search for, it was gone.
Now that I'm back on a classic folder model I'm much happier and everything seems logical. I can still search and find anything I want and messages no longer disappear mysteriously. Outlook's auto-archiving feature, moves items to a PST file, is clumsy compared to Gmail's, but it's much more flexible, and there are many third-party products to assist with Exchange search and archiving.
Pricing the two offerings out can get complicated but the bottom line is Office 365 is more expensive, once you get past the least-expensive packages.
Late last year, Google dropped the free option for Google Apps, grandfathering in existing free customers. There are several other packages, but for business the price is basically $5 per user per month or $50 per user for a year.
There are multiple prices for Office 365, for small, medium and large businesses. There is also a Home Premium edition that costs $100 a year and supports up to five PCs or Macs. I opted for a business package because I wanted features such as SharePoint. Although I don't intend to hold on to it long term, I migrated to an evaluation copy of Office 365 Small Business Premium, which costs $15 per user per month or $150 for a year.
What justifies three times the price? A lot of management features, and a subscription for all your users to the latest full edition of Office desktop. Eventually, I'll probably end up with the non-Premium Office 365 Small Business, which costs a more-reasonable $6 per user per month or $60 per user for a year.
It's fair to say that Microsoft invented Web 2.0 with the original Outlook Web Access online mail service. It was the first prominent implementation of a Web front-end that had live links to back-end data and a user interface that approximated a desktop GUI. Today it looks primitive and, in fact, until Office 365, Microsoft did little to improve the interface. Worse, it worked much better in Internet Explorer than in other browsers -- and lots of users make a habit of avoiding Internet Explorer.
The Web apps are much better now. My experience with them makes me feel better about my decision to eventually ditch the Office 365 edition that includes the desktop software. I haven't found much that I wanted to do but couldn't. I could even print to local printers, something Google Apps can't do, at least not directly.
The Microsoft video below shows the PowerPoint Web app running on two separate systems, both editing the same presentation. Changes in one are reflected in the other.
Slick as this is, it's not like Microsoft invented it. Google Apps was doing it from the beginning, in 2006. The Google Apps applications, especially the spreadsheet, started out quite primitive and almost useless. From what I've seen recently, they have improved a great deal. There is at least some support now for pivot tables and I've been able to import spreadsheets which, years ago, were too complex for Google's spreadsheet app to make sense of. From what I can see, the main weaknesses are in layout, where Office has many more and finer-grained options. That said, it's harder to dismiss Google Apps these days. Just look at the side-by-side of the Excel app and the Google Apps spreadsheet pictured here.
But perhaps the question is moot. For a business, the ability to use Excel, including the desktop version, is a great selling point. With Google Apps, larger businesses are bound to run into limitations I didn't see, especially when dealing with legacy documents.
Any administrator preparing for a significant system migration knows this: You need to plan for things to go wrong, because they usually do. I planned to start my migration on a Friday night, as a business might, to concentrate downtime in less-critical periods. Almost immediately I ran into two roadblocks that were my fault alone.
The first: the domain I was migrating was configured in a complicated way, registered at one registrar but with the authoritative DNS at a different one. Furthermore, the domain was locked at the registrar. I ended up having to make changes at both registrars, but unlocking the domain required filling out a form and faxing it and photo ID to the registrar. Worse, because it was a Friday night there was a good chance nobody would see it till Monday morning. (This process may seem absurdly primitive and cumbersome, but it's part of an effort to protect domains from theft and abuse and I appreciate the need to impede speed, lest domain thieves do their dirty deed.) Fortunately, there were things I could do while waiting.
Once the domain was unlocked, I ran into problem number two, which was that the email address I was going to use for the administrator of my Office 365 domain was the same as one I had been using for many years as a Windows/Live/Passport ID. Microsoft's systems were so confused by this that it took a good 24 hours working with a support escalation engineer to get it fixed.
The final barrier was migrating the data itself, also explained earlier.
If I had the resources and the time I might have been able to do more of the work in advance of changing the actual domain structure, but it doesn't change the overall lesson: You need to know what to expect when you actually start throwing switches in a migration. I should have planned it out better in advance and investigated each stage of the process.
Many people love Gmail and many hate Outlook. Not me. I'm okay with Gmail, but it's not as powerful and usable as either the Outlook desktop or Web app. This is the main impression I've had in the wake of the migration: I'm very happy to be using Outlook again.
In the process, I got an unexpected bonus, although in hindsight I should have expected it: Outlook is an excellent RSS reader. It treats the feeds just like regular folders and you can read articles that come in just as you read email. They show up in unread messages and you can easily forward them as email, editing and annotating them. And by putting the feeds in the Exchange account, you keep your reading up-to-date even if you read from multiple devices. Now that I've migrated, the fact that Google is dumping Google Reader is no skin off my nose.
A couple of years from now I might tire of the problems I'll inevitably encounter with Office 365, but I expect Microsoft to pay more attention to them than Google does to Apps. Microsoft just seems hungrier and more committed to its products, which is why they look great and Google's look kind of old, plain and tired. For now, it's a good feeling.