Microsoft 365 First Steps: Understanding the Value

Posted on September 8, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft 365 with 24 Comments

Note: This would normally be a Premium post, but thanks to Microsoft, we are able to offer it to all readers without any roadblocks. –Paul

Every Thursday, our team meets—virtually, of course, and using Microsoft Teams—to discuss There are other meetings throughout the week, but this is the only one I regularly attend, and as you might imagine it’s the one that matters most to me because this site is pretty much my day-to-day working life.

These meetings aren’t all work, of course: We also spend time catching up with each other, chit-chatting, ribbing the new guy (sorry, Nick), and sharing some laughs. And that’s become all the more important in 2020 because we’re all forced to work remotely now. These meetings are all we have.

Granted, our small business has always been remote for the most part, with no home office and most working from home or from a WeWork facility in New York City. But we typically schedule in-person get-togethers throughout the year because of the unique benefits of being in the same room together. So it’s been a while, and in the past six months of lockdown, we would normally have all gotten together several times already.

I mention all this because this post was inspired by a discussion we had during the winddown of a recent meeting. It was about Microsoft 365, which we’ve migrated to, and Google G Suite, of which we still maintain some legacy vestiges from the early days of the company. Some of the younger folk were surprised we didn’t just use Google. It would be less expensive, after all. By comparison, Microsoft 365 is very expensive, we were told.


For the smallest businesses, Google offers two relevant G Suite offerings: G Suite Basic, which is $6 per user per month, and G Suite Business, which is $12 per user per month. Both provide Gmail Business email addresses with a custom domain, which I think of as the bare minimum for a business account, shared calendars, access to the web- (and mobile-) based Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides applications, video chat, voice conferencing, and chat, and the like. But the Basic tier provides just 30 GB of cloud storage. To get 1 TB of cloud storage—for businesses with fewer than 5 employees, the storage is unlimited over 5 employees—you need the Business tier, which is twice as expensive.

Meanwhile, Microsoft 365 likewise has two offerings of interest to small businesses, and with all the same basic features: Microsoft 365 Business Basic, which is $5 per user per month, and Microsoft 365 Business Standard, which is $12.50 per user per month. But aside from being $1 less expensive per user per month than the ostensibly similar G Suite offering, Microsoft 365 Basic provides a full 1 TB of cloud storage to each user in addition to the web- and mobile versions of Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, plus online meetings, video calls, and chats via Microsoft Teams, and other perks. So it’s not just less expensive, it’s also clearly superior.

Step up to Microsoft 365 Business Standard, however, and things really start to get interesting: This tier also provides the ability for each user to install the full desktop versions of Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote on up to 5 Windows PCs and/or Macs (plus Access and Publisher on the PC only). And it comes with access to additional Microsoft 365 web apps like Bookings and MileIQ. Yes, it’s 50 cents more expensive per user per month than G Suite Business, but I’ll argue that these offerings aren’t even really comparable. Google has nothing that’s truly like Microsoft Teams, and it certainly doesn’t have desktop applications.

Microsoft 365 also benefits from another thing Google can’t provide: Trust. Unlike Google, which is under antitrust scrutiny throughout the United States and Europe and is perhaps best well-known for the privacy-invasive user tracking that powers its advertising business, Microsoft is one of the most trusted companies in the world. And for good reason: Microsoft is making its own transition to the cloud along with its customers, and it is a trusted partner thanks to decades of experience.

Value is, of course, an interesting thing and we all perceive the value that we get from what we pay for differently. And when you hear $5 per user per month or $12.50 per user per month, or whatever, you may get caught up in a debate over whether these prices are fair, or about the many things we now seem to pay for on an ongoing basis with no end in sight. We certainly do suffer from subscription fatigue, and it’s understandable why one might want to reevaluate their spending, especially during a pandemic.

But as I explained to my younger coworkers, I go to the gym six days a week and after every other visit, I go to a Dunkin’ Donuts on the way home, where I buy a large decaf iced latte with skim milk and a breadless breakfast sandwich for myself and a medium latte for my wife. The cost is about $12 minus the tip, and if you do the math, I’m spending enough at Dunkin’ Donuts each month to float a business with about 12 employees, each with a Microsoft 365 Business Standard account. And I don’t even notice this spending, for the most part.

I enjoy this kind of mental exercise because it forces me to think about things in a different way. (And yes, maybe I could go to Dunkin’ Donuts even less frequently, but this is half the number of times I went before the pandemic. So this is me cutting back. Baby steps, folks.)

But here’s yet another way to look at these costs: Sure, both of these Microsoft 365 tiers come with all the basics one would expect, and each lines up well against the corresponding Google choices. But Microsoft 365 also provides a wellspring of other benefits that aren’t easily expressed in a quick list of features. And that’s what I’m hoping to discuss in a series of articles this month in which I’ll describe some of the lesser-known features and benefit that we all get in Microsoft 365 and how we can all derive even more value from something we’re already paying for.

And if you’re not yet using a commercial version of Microsoft 365, please try a free month of Microsoft 365 Business Standard, which includes access to the Microsoft 365 desktop, mobile, and web apps, and 1 TB of cloud storage per user, and can be accessed by up to 25 users during the trial.

More soon.

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Comments (36)

36 responses to “Microsoft 365 First Steps: Understanding the Value”

  1. jdjan

    This article is spot on. I use the $5/month version for my consulting work and it's a superb value. I already get Office Desktop Apps through MS365 Home, and while I could (technically if not quite legally) just use that for business, I like to keep my personal and business affairs separate - especially with OneDrive. Plus, if my business couldn't support the $5/month fee, I would have to rethink being in business at all.

    One other thing is that OneDrive for business feels somehow more secure / robust than OneDrive personal. I might be wrong about that since I've never been able to find a good answer to that specific question except for some random person on Reddit.

    Even so, $5/month for business class email and 1TB secure online business storage alone would be amazing, but to get the rest of the feature set thrown in makes it a no brainer.

    • Paul Thurrott

      I bet millions of people use the consumer desktop versions of Office apps with commercial back-end services. And yes, while this is technically illegal, we live in surreal times. I think we all get a pass on that kind of thing right now especially.
      • jdjan

        In reply to paul-thurrott:

        Ironically, as a consultant with multiple clients, at least 3 of them pay for additional Office 365 subscriptions (with desktops apps) just to have me able to access their corporate resources such as email and SharePoint.

        Installing their app licenses on my personal machine seems messy. There's no real reason not to do it, but I hate getting that message about allowing my organization to manage my [personal] device. I mean really, who wants their organization to manage their device?

  2. rusty chameleon

    I've had a hell of a lot of value out of my purchased copy of Office 2013, and I can't seem to find a feature in the newer versions that I've felt I needed.

    • wright_is

      In reply to rusty chameleon:

      Microsoft 365 is a lot more than just Office, as the article describes... It is like saying, "my 2013 Honda Civic works fine, why would I want a Kenworth big rig?" If the Civic fulfils your needs, there is no need for the big rig, but if you are moving a lot of big stuff around, the Civic falls way short.

      The same with Office. If you are using it for simple tables and documents on a single PC and no team work, there is little need for Micrsoft 365. On the other hand, if you are working in a business and need to collaborate on documents, have regular team meetings, share information and work on several devices, Microsoft 365 is a godsend.

  3. wright_is

    We also get Windows 10 Enterprise with our subscription (an E5, I think). Another advantage is CALs for file and print server, for example.

  4. wright_is

    In reply to ghostrider:

    We went with M365 E5, because it was cheaper, in the long run, than buying a new version of Office every few years, when support on the old one ran out, and the CALs for basic server services that are covered in the subscription. If we had to buy those for every server, that would put the costs way over M365, even if we don't use any of the cloud services.

  5. simont

    In reply to circuscircus:

    Note: This would normally be a Premium post, but thanks to Microsoft, we are able to offer it to all readers without any roadblocks. –Paul

    Which tells you its a sponsored post

    • Paul Thurrott

      And? Microsoft didn't ask me to write this, nor did it have any involvement at all. This is something I would have written regardless, and it would have been a Premium post. Maybe just be happy that this site is generating a bit of money for us to continue working and that we can do so without compromising our integrity.
  6. brettscoast

    Excellent write-up here Paul, with sidebar goodness from Dunkin'donuts. Microsoft 365 business standard appears to be very good value considering the tangible benefits over Google's Gsuite.

  7. winbookxl2

    As a small business owner, having access to our capital and reducing our monthly expenses and increasing the cash flow is essential. Especially during these unique times we all are experiencing. 

    That is why I enjoy MS 365 and the value we receive from MS. Instead of paying hundreds of dollars per month in subscriptions; I pay years in advance to secure pricing and amortize it as a monthly cost. I save 20-30 percent yearly, and unlike Google, I can set up a service level agreement with MS for year-round support without paying extra.  

    The features and experiences I have with MS enable me to work in my budget as a freelancer to employ a full-time assistant year-round to help accomplish our goals. 

  8. geoff

    I'm always surprised to hear that a business would use G-Suite at all.

    The Google business model may be OK for consumers, who in general don't care about security or data privacy, but any *business* that thinks like that has some serious problems.

    Slack, Jira, Zoom and so on - there are alternatives if you need them. But G-Suite? Really?

    • Paul Thurrott

      I feel like Google is more attractive to younger people for whatever reason. The risk to Microsoft is that students will use Google products and services throughout school and then expect that when they enter the workforce, or use that when they start their own very small companies.
    • jgraebner

      In reply to Geoff:

      Google's business-focused offerings are pretty different from their consumer options and the security/privacy offered to businesses is strict. I work for a company that vets software solutions very thoroughly and the G-Suite has been available for us for a long time. It is behind our company's single-sign-on system with 2-factor authentication, so very difficult to breach. We do mostly just use Documents, though, with Microsoft 365 as the solution for email/calendar/contacts and OneDrive for file sync.

      I think that many of Google's in-roads in the business community stem from Microsoft being a bit late with their web-based solutions, particularly when it comes to document collaboration. While Office Online has largely caught up now, we still mainly use Google Documents for collaboration out of habit and the lack of a strong need to switch away from a solution that is working fine.

    • rusty chameleon

      In reply to Geoff:

      My company used (I have left the company) G-suite for email and scheduling and it worked great.

    • minke

      In reply to Geoff:

      G Suite security has always been excellent and so-called "privacy" is no different than for Microsoft's business offerings. Even at the consumer level they only use data to target ads to you--nobody is reading or sharing your data. In my experience, G Suite/Gmail has been more reliable and available than Microsoft's business products over many years. It seems like a day doesn't go by without some OneDrive syncing problem or issue with email using Microsoft. It's a great product, but not as reliable as Google.

      • Paul Thurrott

        That's not been my experience at all, and I use both every day. OneDrive is very reliable, it's one of those technologies I don't even think about anymore. Google's desktop sync experience is not on the same level.
  9. jgraebner

    I wonder how common it is for businesses to simply pay for multiple solutions. I work at a very large company, so the situation is obviously going to be different than for a small business, but I still find it interesting that we all have subscriptions to Microsoft 365, G-Suite, Slack, Zoom, and probably several other similar services that aren't coming to mind. We also use the redundant services. For the most part, I've found that most people use Office for the desktop apps while doing most of the web-based collaboration using G-Suite, although it's becoming increasingly common to see documents in the Office web applications too. Which of those is used also tends to be somewhat dependent on whether project documentation is mainly in Sharepoint or in Atlassian's Confluence. Slack has been a key communications tool at the company for a few years now, but I'm starting to see some projects going with Teams instead. We recently switched to Zoom from another conferencing solution, but I've also had a few meetings in Teams.

    This is all pretty much as confusing as it sounds. :)

    • Paul Thurrott

      I bet that's very common. It's also pretty inefficient, and not just financially. I guess if you could argue that some solutions were best in class or whatever. We use/used some third-party stuff that we're reevaluating now as well. Basecamp, etc.
      • gregsedwards

        In reply to paul-thurrott:

        This has been my experience as well throughout my career. Big companies tend to operate like fiefdoms, with department heads all vying for influence like tribal warlords. They all want to use their own tools, to do it their way, and ambitiously, to make their way become the company's way. And the company ends up with 18 different tools that all basically do the same three things.

        So, this team will decide it wants to do everything in Slack, because that's what all the techies are using, but that other team will use G Suite because that's what all the younger folks are using. And if the company won't buy them licenses, then someone up the chain has a P-card they can use to expense it.

        Meanwhile, Microsoft gets unfairly penalized, because some admin is harboring a grudge about that one time 20 years ago when they screwed him over by removing support for an obscure GPO setting he once used to jury-rig the office coffee pot, and because Microsoft has the audacity to create granular controls that admins invariably use to cripple all their best features, leaving aggravated users to complain about how much Office sucks and nothing ever works the way it should.

        IMO, "best of breed" is a term that gets thrown cavalierly around without enough consideration for other important concepts like integration and synergy. Teams vs. Zoom is a perfect example. Sure, Zoom makes a nice video conferencing platform, but with Teams you get so much more, especially when you start folding in all the collaboration features of Office that just integrate into it seamlessly. No awkward plug-ins to make it work with Outlook. No convoluted links for distributing and co-authoring documents during meetings. No worrying about where you're going to post a recording so that others can access it. It all just works together because it was designed that way.

  10. skramer49

    One of your best articles Paul!

    "Microsoft 365 also benefits from another thing Google can’t provide: Trust." I don't remember [because I'm old} how many Google services I used/liked/relied on that they dropped over the years. MSFT has been reliable all along. I am sort of an Apple "fanboy", but I still have an MSFT 365 account, all that beautiful storage and more than a decade of Word and OneNote files that I can rely on.

  11. JerryH

    As someone from a large enterprise, it is amazing to me that this business standard plan is only $12.50 a month. As your company scales up, you find these small plans just not having enough in them for full operations. Things like AIP / MIP (Azure Information Protection / Microsoft Information Protection), Defender ATP, Intune, etc. push you to getting that expensive M365 E5 license. And likely that cost - which is much more expensive than Google (and provides so many more services that you can't compare the two) - is more what your younger counterparts were thinking of.

    • wright_is

      In reply to JerryH:

      Agreed, but on the other hand, the Google G-Suite can't offer features to match, so there is no comparable G-Suite offering to compare to...

      Our ERP and DMS software integrates fully with local MS Office applications. The same for the telephone system, which integrates with Outlook. When the ERP system exports a report, it opens it directly in Excel, formats it and sets up filters. If we were using G-Suite, it would generate a .csv file, which would have to be uploaded/imported to G-Suite and then formatted.

      When the telephone rings, the contact information can automatically be called up in Outlook and we can dial directly from Outlook.

      There are a lot of features in non-Microsoft software that corporate users take for granted, because that software integrates seamlessly into locally install Office.

    • Paul Thurrott

      That could be. But education/communication about what's really going on here is all the more important if so. These guys think of Microsoft as "their father's Oldsmobile." I don't think they keep up on how they really compare.
      • nine54

        In reply to paul-thurrott:

        I think there are a couple of dynamics here. One is sort of the cultural stigma or brand image, i.e., the "their father's Oldsmobile" factor. The startup types or creative types want to use products from brands they identify with. It's amazing how effective Google was here with the whole "don't be evil" propaganda.

        The other dynamic is more technical in origin. For millennials, all computing = always online/connected. The idea of "offline" computing or computing before the ubiquity of the WWW and internet is Stone-Age stuff. These folks are inherently biased towards "born in the cloud" vendors. This often goes hand-in-hand with the cultural or brand values point, but it's also because they can't imagine not having a document or file or whatever not accessible from anywhere. Office web apps have come a long way, but their origins are still on the desktop. G Suite was born in the cloud.

  12. minke

    I use both at work and also for my own personal work and small business. G Suite and/or Gmail have a couple of big advantages and some disadvantages, which you have pointed out. Gmail is so far superior to Online Exchange or whatever they call Microsoft's email it isn't funny. Every single day Microsoft puts important emails into Junk and feeds junk into my Inbox. Gmail almost never does that--I think I had one junk email a few weeks ago. Plus, every single day I encounter some sort of OneDrive syncing problem. Google Drive I never have problems with, plus uploads and downloads are much faster using the same system. Google Drive's lower storage limits for me are not a factor because Google docs formats don't count against storage, and photos don't count (at "High Quality") against storage in Google Photos. I don't store much else that takes up any space. I use some pretty high-end Macs at work, but the desktop Ms programs sometimes are really slow to fire up and sync up. Strangely, I do find the online version of Office quite good these days, and I prefer it for most day-to-day uses, though probably every day I also have to fire up the desktop versions of Word or Excel for some functionality.

    • Paul Thurrott

      Gmail vs. Outlook on the Web is kind of a draw to me, but I used to prefer Gmail a lot and then they really started over-working the UI. It's as busy as desktop Outlook now, maybe worse. But OneDrive vs. GDrive is no comparison, the Microsoft stuff just always works.
  13. nick321

    It is a shame that the Business Standard version doesn't allow you to sync favourites and passwords across devices with edge. Yet a free personal live or hotmail account you can.

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