Office Tools on the Web

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2705, 2009-01-30, as the cover article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 6-9) and their website.

Prior to widespread and inexpensive access to the Internet, the typical individual had only one computer on which to store and work with business documents, and that was the one computer in his office. Likewise, an individual only had one machine for creating and modifying personal documents, and that was her home PC. In consequence, before laptops became affordable, transferring files between one's business and personal computers, required tediously copying the files onto a diskette or other data storage device, and hand carrying it to the destination machine.

But now the Web has made it possible for us to store limitless amounts of business and personal data on other people's computers — all connected to ours through the Internet. Furthermore, we are increasingly able to not just store documents on the Web, but create and modify them on Web servers, through the use of Web-based application programs. This means it is possible to access a document online, from either one's business or personal computer, or a third-party machine, such as a PC located in an Internet café. In fact, even the traditional computer is no longer a requirement, because a growing number of these Web office productivity applications are designed for use on Web-enabled cell phones and other handheld devices.

This new capability is especially critical for today's knowledge worker, who does not use just one device, but several. In addition, more of this work is being done while traveling (e.g., commuting on light rail to the office) or going nowhere (e.g., pedaling like mad on a stationary bicycle in the local gym). Web-based productivity tools have also made it much easier for multiple team members to collaborate on the same document, since there is no longer any confusion as to whose computer currently has the "master copy" of any document; rather, there is only one copy, on the Web.

For the longest time, most documents were made using the most popular desktop productivity applications, such as Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, WordPerfect, and others. These programs were typically purchased (or "borrowed") packaged together in suites, such as Microsoft Office. Major software vendors, such as the Redmond giant, derived a considerable amount of their revenue from corporate licensing of these office productivity suites. Thus the current transition to Web-based applications and data storage, has caused most of these desktop software companies to either begin playing catch-up, or simply give up. We will examine some of the leading online office tools that keep those software vendors awake at night.

G-Office

It should come as no surprise that Google, the Web's current Goliath, poses the most substantial threat to the longtime hegemony of Microsoft Office. It began on 6 June 2006, with the beta release of Google Spreadsheets, which provides much of the same functionality as Microsoft Excel, but minus the hassles of installing Office, paying licensing fees, storing the spreadsheet on your own computer, and (for many people) even trying to find the spreadsheet later.

Google Docs - new spreadsheet
Figure 1. Google Docs - new spreadsheet

Four months later, the company rolled out Google Docs, which encompassed the spreadsheet program, and added much more, including full support for documents (thus undermining Microsoft Word).

Google Docs - new document
Figure 2. Google Docs - new document

In addition, the Google Docs package allows one to create presentations (thus countering Microsoft PowerPoint), as well as online forms. Within the user interface, you can organize all of the documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and forms that you create, in the existing 'unfiled' folder or in new ones. You can see a list of all of your own files, plus any shared with you by someone else. Similar to Gmail, Google Docs allows you to affix a star to any file, which is handy for designating special files.

Google Docs homepage
Figure 3. Google Docs homepage

These online products must have been seen by Microsoft as an alarming shot across the bow, because this suite of tools provides all of the commonly used functionality found in Microsoft's counterpart, but is completely free. Defenders of Microsoft Office pointed out that their favorite possessed the advantage that a user does not have to be connected to the Internet in order to work on any of their files. However, this advantage evaporated with the advent of Google Gears allowing one to edit Google Docs files even when not online.

Excitement over Google Docs (although of a much more positive variety than that experienced at Microsoft HQ) was also felt by the legion of Internet users who began trying it out, writing about it in their blogs, and recommending it to other people. In the first 12 months of the product's availability, the number of documents and spreadsheets went from a little over 200,000 to just under 1.5 million (October 2006 to October 2007). By the end of that first period, the number of users exceeded half a million, in United States alone.

Redmond Responds

Microsoft is not accustomed to losing any battle, and thus, as part of its massive strategic initiative to compete on the Web, it began work on Office Web. Even though it is not available yet, as of this writing, Microsoft executives are already singing its praises and preparing the public for the next release of Office, which would include full Web capabilities. On 28 October 2008, at the Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles, California, a Senior Vice President within the company's Business Division announced that Office Web would consist of lightweight versions of the Office products — specifically, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote — that would be accessed through Web browsers. Note that this product should not be confused with Office Live Workspace, which allows users to simply save documents on the Web, but not modify them online.

The Microsoft representative stated that documents would be accessible using PCs and phones, and that the files could be edited collaboratively. However, no mention was made as to whether or not the only supported Web browser would be Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE). This of course would be a mistake, given IE's declining market share; but it would be consistent with attempts by Microsoft and other companies, years ago, to lock Internet users into that particular browser. Fortunately, some bloggers have reported seeing demos running in Firefox and Safari, which should be possible since Office Web runs on Microsoft's new Silverlight technology, for which there are plug-ins for those browsers.

Given that Microsoft has always charged for the desktop-based Office suite, how will they generate revenue from the Web-based version? Apparently the company will offer access to Office Web through subscription and with advertisements. This naturally raises the question as to how OEMs, which traditionally have made money by selling Office software, would be able to continue to do so with Office Web.

Other Contenders

Google and Microsoft are certainly not the only game in town, as evidenced by the growing number of companies and open-source development groups releasing Web-based office suites and individual programs. There are far too many to cover here, but we can mention some of the better-known efforts.

Adobe may be wondering why their online word processor, Buzzword, has not been receiving much media or user buzz. For one thing, many prospective users may find the program's black homepage to be rather cold and uninviting. But if one gets past the existentialist page styling, one will find that the program is not only free of charge, but it offers many attractive features, such as display exactly matching what will appear when printed (unlike some desktop-based word processors), role-based access control, document version control (including the ability to revert back to earlier versions), powerful list styling, collaborative editing, and digital image manipulation.

picoScribe consists of the word processor picoWrite and the spreadsheet program picoCalc. Their answer to PowerPoint, picoShow, has not yet been finished. picoWrite features a layout engine for pixel true rendering and printing (not the inferior ones of Web browsers), Office-like page layouts including multiple columns, footnotes, tables, images, embedded spreadsheets, command undo/redo, zooming, real-time online collaboration (utilizing peer-to-peer networking), and document editing off-line. picoCalc offers all of those features except those specific to text layout. Even though this suite has been written up in online articles, as of this writing, the first beta version is still being developed for its release (according to Eric Hellmich of picoScribe, in personal correspondence).

Thinkfree Office has a far more impressive online presence, and comprises four applications, all of which are designed to have greater compatibility with Microsoft Office, versus their rival suites. The word processor is Write, and it supports headers, footers, tables, hyperlinks, sections, multi-column layouts, drop caps, image grouping, paragraphs styling, and more. Calc is the spreadsheet program, and it supports 40 types of charts, 300 functions, auto-fill, multiple cell formatting, worksheet protection, image management, etc. The presentation program is named Show, and handles clipart, drawings, and other images, as well as drawing tools and color schemes. The Thinkfree suite is rounded out with Manager, which provides collaborative and distributed document management. The company does offer a free trial version, but they force you to complete a contact form just to find out the price ($49.95), which is annoying.

Zoho makes available a list of Web-based applications whose number and total functionality exceed those of even Microsoft Office. They include Mail, Writer, Sheet, Show, Docs, Notebook (online note taking), Wiki, Share (online repository), Planner, Chat, CRM, Projects, Creator (online databases), Invoice, and Meeting. Most industry analysts and software reviewers have given the Zoho products high marks. Zoho offers free versions of all of their applications, as well as more advanced fee-based versions.

So the next time that you need to create a document or spreadsheet or something similar, don't feel obliged to use Microsoft Office. Think outside the cubicle.

Copyright © 2008 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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