I recently moved my personal email to Google Mail, the premium version of Gmail designed for business users like myself. Why did I move? My email for the past 15 years has been hosted on Microsoft Exchange either on my own server or in the cloud. For the last 5 years, I have hosted my personal email on the cloud version of Microsoft Exchange provided directly by Microsoft called Office 365. I was actually a beta user for Microsoft when Microsoft used to call the service Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite. We can all probably agree Microsoft Office 365 is a much better name than Microsoft BPOS:)
Microsoft Office 365 is Microsoft’s cloud initiative designed to compete head-to-head against Google Apps, Google’s premium office suite that also includes email, calendar and contacts. The primary reason I chose to switch to Google Mail was because I felt to be a well rounded technologist, I need to fully experience Google’s premium mail service to know if Microsoft Office 365 was keeping up or falling behind the competition. I am a huge fan of both companies and love that they are slugging it out over users. Competition is a good thing for innovation and the users I support through my technology work win making the industry as a whole better.
What is my first impressions of Google Mail? Google does in fact beat Microsoft in the web-based experience with their interactive browser-based design focused on touch and innovative organization of your Inbox. Microsoft in recent years has worked to resolve this deficit but Google still has the advantage. For example, with Google Mail, I can paste an image directly into an email while with Microsoft Office 365, you have to save the image, upload it and then hope it displays correctly in the email. Unfortunately, the full web browser was the only place that Google shined. Let me explain.
One area Microsoft beats Google handily is with their Outlook client. Outlook has been Microsoft’s stronghold for years with many business users loving the feature rich software client the tech giant has innovated for years. You may be surprised though that I don’t officially count Outlook as a plus because as a Internet-focused professional, I am all about the cloud and bulky software that requires a DVD or downloading to install and then a license key to work just doesn’t fit that Software as a Service (SaaS) model I promote very well. So 1 point to Google for web design and rich web-based experience and no points for Microsoft so far.
What about mobile? Now this is where we see the men separate themselves from the boys. Here in mobile, Microsoft surprisingly laps Google when it comes to the Apple iPad and iPhone app experience. Seeing is believing so let me show you exactly what I mean. Below is a screenshot of Microsoft’s OWS app for the iPad. OWA is short for Outlook Web Access which has been the official web portal name of Microsoft Exchange for years.
What do we see? We see the usual suspects associated with a business-centric email experience: email, contacts and calendar. Microsoft calls Contacts in this app People which matches the name used in their recent Microsoft 8.1 release of their Microsoft operating system.
Mail, Calendar and People are the 3 most important areas in today’s modern business: who (people), what (mail), why (mail), where (calendar) and when (calendar). The only thing missing here is Tasks. Having worked with Microsoft Exchange for years, Microsoft has begrudgingly allowed Tasks to somewhat survive despite their true desire I feel to see that feature go away (possibly to be owned and managed via Microsoft CRM). My theory is based on the fact Tasks has never really been deeply embedded in Microsoft Exchange and is often the last feature you see release in their beta products. I would not be surprised if Microsoft later adds Task to their app in the lower right section which is empty now but they will do so begrudgingly.
Now that you’ve seen the Microsoft application for the iPad, let’s see how Google stacks up. Below is a screenshot of their Google Mail application on the Apple iPad. Do you see what is missing? Yes, contacts and calendars are no where to be found in their app. Google has apparently focused their application on just email, solely. I would have probably not been upset with this limitation had I been using their free Gmail service but I find this very disappointing given I am paying for their premium business-class Google Mail service.
This was not the only deficiency I found: Google Mail on the iPhone and iPad does not allow you to add a new contact or update existing contacts in your Google address book. How then can you add a new person to your address book via the Google iPhone or iPad app? You must first send an email to the person and only then will Google automatically add that person as long as you have that feature enabled. What about phone numbers, addresses and other details? There is no way of doing this. Crazy, I know! Trust me, I can’t make this stuff up.
How do you access your Google Contacts or Google Calendar from your iPhone or iPad? There must be an app for that, correct? No! There is in fact no app for that! To manage Google Contacts and Google Calendar from your iPhone or iPad, you must first setup the built-in Apple mail service to sync your Google contacts and calendar. This is scary given the new Apple OS Mavericks for a short period broke this feature leaving many Google Mail and Gmail users with no access to mail, contacts or calendar natively via the Apple desktop other than through the Google web portal. Imagine being on a plane or remotely with no Internet access? Had this bug extended to the iOS, many Google users would have been in a world of discomfort trying to manage their contacts and calendar via that small web browser on an iPhone!
What is the another problem with Apple’s Google integration with their built-in mail service? The innovative organization of your Google Inbox you get from the web that separates out your important email from all those unsolicited solicitations is completely lost. All that spam and marketing emails that Google worked so hard to separate now again appears right next to that important meeting invitation you been awaiting.
I won’t even go into the difficulties of supporting Apple mail service for businesses technology departments and how the service can be confusing to configure for your mother-in-law who comes to rely in you for email support during the holidays. The niceness of having an all-in-one app like Microsoft OWA is the ease for users to setup and support. This is something lost to Google Mail users on the Apple iPhone and iPad.
What about meeting invitations you receive from other business users wanting to meet with you that arrive in your Google Inbox? You can in fact accept them from your mobile device but… drum roll please… there is no Google Calendar in the app to see if there is a conflict. So you can go ahead and press “Yes” but really have no way in the Google Mail app to see your Google Calendar for possible conflicts. Microsoft on the other hand allows you to go directly to your calendar in the same app, review your schedule and accept, decline or reschedule.
See below the screenshot of a Microsoft Calendar showing a schedule event on the built-in calendar.
Below, we see the same meeting invitation shown earlier in the Microsoft OWA screenshot but with no visibility of Google Calendars in their Google Mail iPhone/iPad app, good luck on knowing whether you are actually available or not.
Ok, so Google gets 1 point for web-design. I am giving Microsoft 3 points for mobile experience (since they sync Email, Contacts and Calendar all in 1 innovative app). It is quite surprising for Microsoft to lap Google in this area since Microsoft was in fact drastically late to the Apple iPhone and iPad app game and Google was an early innovator of Apple apps. Google’s own CEO actually served on Apple’s Board of Directors until he was famously removed when Google announced their own mobile device. The fact Microsoft has innovated faster than Google on the Apple mobile platform goes to prove that the first company to innovate isn’t necessary the best for long. Microsoft’s app for the iPhone and iPad does in fact lap Google Mail by a mile.
Before I wrap up this review, let me show you one last image. This the screen used to add a contact to Microsoft People from within the the Microsoft OWA app. I would show you this feature in Google Mail on my iPad but surprisingly you can’t add a contact to Google Contacts from within their Google Mail app on the iPhone or iPad.
For those of you that send emails, call and schedule appointments with contacts like me, you will appreciate that Microsoft allows you to do all this from your Apple mobile device all in 1 app. For those of you that send email to apparently everything else but actual people or just reply to email you receive, have no need to call anyone from your mobile phone and do not need to review your calendar from the road, Google Mail app will apparently fill the bill:)