For the last few decades, Microsoft Word has been the de-facto standard for word processors across the working world. That’s finally starting to shift, and it looks like Google is the heir apparent. The company’s Google Docs solution (or to be specific, the integrated word processor) is cross-platform, inter-operable, automatically syncs, it’s easily shareable, and perhaps best of all, it’s free.
But Google Docs still has a long way to go before it can match all of Word’s features — after all, Microsoft has been developing its word processor for over thirty years. Does Google Docs’ low barrier to entry and cross-platform functionality win out? That depends upon what you need. Let’s break down each in terms of features and capabilities.
To put lightly, Microsoft Word has an incredible advantage on Google Docs in terms of raw technical capability. From fairly humble beginnings in the 1980s, Microsoft has added new tools and options in each successive version. Most of the basic editing tools are available in Google Docs, but users who are used to Word will find it limited. From basic placement of images to advanced techniques like macros and mail merge, Word is the breakaway winner for more technical writing. Microsoft Word can also be augmented with add-on tools from third-party developers. While Google Docs also supports add-ons, there’s a comparatively tiny amount.
The same thing that makes Word a winner in terms of features also makes it a loser when it comes to the interface. Thanks to hundreds of built-in tools and options, finding the right one in Word can be somewhat confusing. Google Docs, on the other hand, is comparatively simple. Beyond the normal text formatting tools and a few extras like tables, rulers, page numbers, and footnotes, there isn’t much to the UI that you won’t find in a basic text editor. For the purposes of learning and ease of use, simpler is better. Microsoft has attempted to streamline Word’s UI in recent years, but it’s still somewhat unwieldy.
While both Word and Docs are compatible with the most commonly-used word processing formats like Word and rich text, Word can import its own files much more easily and it’s much better at displaying more complex file formats across different versions. When using Google Docs, I often copy large amounts of text from Word into the web interface without bothering to import the file itself, then replicate the formatting.
Word includes editing and markup tools for sharing and editing among teams, and the latter Office 365 versions of the program do allow for web-based editing and sharing. It is a bit unwieldy, however, and users foreign to it may find it confusing.
Google Docs was born, and remains, online — multiple users can read the same document at once, and edit-capable users can see changes almost in real time wherever they happen to be. For sharing among two or two hundred users, Google Docs has the clear advantage.
As a web-based service, Google Docs is available on any desktop platform with a modern browser. That includes Windows, OS X, Linux, Chrome OS, and (in some cases) even mobile platforms running in compatibility mode. Apps for Google Docs are available for Android and iOS, but notably not Windows Phone or Blackberry. An Internet connection is required on the desktop unless you use the Chrome OS/Browser app, and a Google account is necessary to log in.
Microsoft Word (as a subset of Office) is available for Windows and OS X, and it comes pre-installed on Windows Phone devices. Free Word clients are available for Android and iOS, and Office 365 is available on the web for modern browsers.
As stated above, Google Docs is free in just about every circumstance. A “Business” version of Google Apps is available starting at $5 per user per month, but most individual users won’t need its administrator controls or live support.
A standard, stand-alone version of Microsoft Office is available for a one-time purchase of $149.99, which enables you to install it on one computer only. (Word is not available as an individual program.) Microsoft Office 365, which includes online and offline versions of Word, starts at $6.99 a month. Depending on your work or school, you may be furnished with a free copy, but most users need to pay at least something for Word.
Here’s the gist of all this: if you’re used to Word and/or rely on any of its more advanced features, you’ll want to stick with it, especially if your employer requires its use. While it’s possible to use Google Docs at home and Word at work, it’s not a fun experience.
On the other hand, if all you need is a basic word processor or you prioritize sharing with other users, Google Docs is more than capable. Of course, since the latter is free and the former is often provided to end users by companies or schools, it’s entirely possible to use and appreciate both.