Why Gmail beats OWA, part 2

By Jeff Gould

A while back my esteemed co-blogger Doug Miller posted a counterpoint to my post Why Gmail beats Office 365. Doug gives a long list of reasons why, on the contrary, Office 365 beats Gmail. Although he hasn’t changed my mind about preferring Gmail, I have to admit that I agree with almost everything he says. In fact, his post has helped me to clarify my thinking about this topic. At bottom Doug’s argument boils down to the idea that Office 365 is a more powerful online tool that has more of the features that sophisticated enterprise users need, while Gmail is basically a repurposed consumer product.

I have to say I entirely agree with Doug’s argument. But it doesn’t change my mind about using Gmail, and here’s why. The reality is that Doug is a more sophisticated user than I am. He actually knows how to use all the fancy bells and whistles in Office 365 (see his post for examples) and therefore he gets the full benefit from them. I on the other hand use Gmail as a simple email tool with some very limited calendaring functionality on the side. For my purposes, the greater simplicity and speed of the Gmail user interface trump the bigger feature set of Office 365.

One other thing became clear to me in reading Doug’s post. It’s not really accurate to compare Gmail to Office 365. As an end user, I am really comparing the Gmail user interface to Outlook Web Access (OWA), which is Microsoft’s web implementation of the Outlook email thick client (Outlook Web Access has now been absorbed into the broader Office Web Apps suite, which includes the online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.). Doug rightly points out that thick client Outlook itself handily beats both Gmail and OWA as an email interface. I used Outlook for years and I completely agree with him on this point. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I switched about 18 months ago to browser interfaces as part of my self-imposed “eat your own cloud dogfood” policy. But in an ideal world of course I would switch back to native Outlook, which works equally well as a client to the backends of Gmail, Office 365 or on-premises Exchange.

Having laid out all these quid pro quos and provisos (to quote Robin Williams’ genie in Aladdin), let me reiterate my view that the Gmail interface on the whole offers a better user experience that OWA. I mentioned some of the reasons in my last post:

  • Gmail loads noticeably faster;
  • It makes it much easier to print messages or entire threads;
  • It lets me see my inbox and my calendar in separate tabs (why OWA won’t allow this is utterly mysterious to me);
  • It lets me paste in plain text from Word rather than insisting on carrying over the original Word formatting (maybe there is a way to fix this, but as a non-sophisticated user I don’t know what it is);
  • Last but not least, it just seems generally easier to use and configure.

That said, OWA does have one really nice feature that Gmail lacks, and that is the ability to classify messages in folders. Google’s decision to go with labels instead of the obviously superior solution of folders strikes me as not only foolish, but typically arrogant – an embarrassing case of not-invented-here syndrome.

Still, if people in Microsoft’s Office 365 product group are wondering why Google Apps is beating them in so many public sector and education cloud email competitions, they should really take a look at user opinions of the OWA web email interface compared to Gmail. Although CIOs and procurement officers may not like admit it, end user preferences often carry considerable political weight when large organizations are engaged in major buying decisions. The fact that the CEO’s daughter or the agency director’s wife knows and likes Gmail, but has never heard of (or, worse, is put off by) OWA may be a bigger factor in Google’s success than the engineers in Redmond realize.

One Response to Why Gmail beats OWA, part 2

  1. [...] blogged several times about my frustrations using Microsoft’s Outlook Web Access (OWA) as an interface to Office [...]

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