NEW YORK (MainStreet) The question is blunt: why buy something when you can get the equivalent for free?
Therein is the heart of the Google Docs vs. Microsoft Office face-off.
The related question: is Google Docs in fact substantially the same as Microsoft Office?
More schools are pointing students to the egalitarian Google Docs, take note back to school shoppers. Ever more small businesses also are gravitating to Google Docs. The longtime Microsoft workplace productivity hegemony can no longer be taken for granted.
Let's talk price. Microsoft Office Home and Student edition (2013) is $139 at Amazon. A Home and Office edition (2013) is $219. The cheap version excludes Outlook, the pricier one builds it in, along with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.
Microsoft Office 365, a cloud based version, offers Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook for $5 per month.
As for Google Docs, it's free for home or school users - and includes Docs, Presentation (à la PowerPoint), Spreadsheet (à la Excel), along with forms, drawing tools, and voice and video calling. Gmail and Calendar are a click away.
A business version is priced at $5 per month per user.
Office 365 leveled a playing field that had been advantage Google. That is because Google Docs lets a user access work from anywhere, with any device that can run a browser. That means computer or tablet or phone.
Historically, Office has been bound to a computer. But Office 365 - along with various, recently released Microsoft apps - have dramatically extended Office's accessibility.
Fact: in just about every case, the Microsoft tools are more feature rich and robust than Google's.
That does not mean they are better for the average user.
Dave Skowronski, who develops custom apps that run inside Microsoft software for business clients, elaborated: "Applying Pareto's Principle -- the 80 - 20 rule -- 80% of Office users only use 20% of Office's features. For these people, the free Google Docs is all they need."
He quickly added: "However, the other 20% of Office users are using actual applications they have developed or have paid consultants such as myself to develop." For them, Google Docs is not happening, precisely because they use much of the power that Office can deliver.
Which camp do you belong in?
Christa Scherck, who runs her own public relations agency in Los Angeles, gave her side of the story: "My laptop came with a trial of MS Office but with Google Docs being free and available, I'd rather invest in the latest marketing tools not software. I've been using Google Docs ever since and it's been working for me. I don't see the need to return to Office."
Heather Summers, a Texas software trainer, said she spent 15 years teaching people how to use Microsoft Office; now she teaches them Google Docs. She admits that, for power users, Excel - Microsoft's mature spreadsheet app - is significantly more robust than Google's Sheets. Excel, she said, is "one of the hardest things for people to give up" when they move to Docs.
She claimed, too, that Google Docs has an ace in the hole - the app called Forms - which, she explained, is much better than anything in Office. "In Office the only way to create a form is by creating a Word Template with the Forms toolbar and then locking that template so that people can't change it but can still answer the questions," she said. "You have to either print or save each form in a folder and then collate the answers by hand."
By contrast, this is seamlessly done in Google Docs.
"You can create a form by using Google Forms," she said. "You don't have to protect or lock anything. The form is accessible through email or by a link. The answers are automatically saved into a spreadsheet for you and the answers are collated for you. They are also automatically made into graphs so you can graphically see the results."
Not all sing the praises of Google Docs. Suken Shah, CFO at Neatpost, which provides tools for searching and managing classified ads, said that Google Docs has "a long way to go" before it catches up with Office."
He specifically pointed to Google Presentation and insisted it lacks the bells and whistles feature in PowerPoint.
Additionally, just about nobody would say the email and calendar tools offered by Google are on a par with Microsoft's Outlook. The latter is the gold standard and, really, the only question is: do you need that much power?
The pennywise solution: use Google Docs for a week and keep tabs: are there functions you wish you could perform more easily? Can they be performed better in Office?
You just may find Google Docs is all you need and the price, definitely, is very right. If not, give Microsoft 365 a trial.
Note: This reporter switched to Google Docs about four years ago, with no complaints. But your needs may be different.
--Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet