When Microsoft releases Office 2007 later in 2006, the major overhaul of the venerable office productivity suite is likely to spur an examination of lower-priced alternatives.
Competitors such as Sun Microsystems StarOffice, OpenOffice.orgs OpenOffice and Corels WordPerfect are most often brought up as competitors, but a new crop of Web-based productivity tools is beginning to garner attention—and rightly so, based on eWEEK Labs tests.
The desire for capable Microsoft Office alternatives seems so strong, in fact, that Googles acquisition earlier this year of Upstartle—the company that developed online word processor Writely—ignited rampant rumors that the search engine giant was planning to launch a Web-based Microsoft Office killer.
Google executives have denied the rumors, even after the beta release of Google Spreadsheets, an online spreadsheet application, in May.
But even without a “Google Office,” applications such as Salesforce.coms CRM (customer relationship management) system have proven the viability of the Web-based app model within corporations.
eWEEK Labs has written plenty about traditional, offline desktop competitors to Office, but little about online competitors.
We therefore recently put three Web-based office productivity suites to the test, to determine what the apps have to offer end users and whether they make sense for business use.
We evaluated ThinkFrees ThinkFree Office Online; Silveroffices GOffice; and Ajax 13s AjaxLaunch.
One of the most important things to consider when evaluating non-Office suites, especially in a corporate environment, is compatibility with Office—because, even if your organization has decided it wants to avoid using Office, the Microsoft suite still commands more than 99 percent of the market and you cant avoid working with it.
To gauge compatibility with Office, we tested the online apps using a .doc document created in Office 2003, an .xls spreadsheet created in Excel 2003 and a .ppt created in PowerPoint 2003.
In general, we found a lot to like about the online productivity suites we tested, but they do lack a lot of the features and functionality that corporate users rely on.
We therefore believe that it will be a long time before conventional desktops office suites are overthrown.
Still, these Web-based apps offer some features we have yet to see in Office, particularly collaborative capabilities.
Online productivity suites also make it easy for users to create documents using computers that have an Internet connection but no office suite installed.
And because all the suites we looked at were free (or practically free), theyre very cost-effective, especially when compared to Office 2007 Professionals price of $499 a seat.
As with everything, IT managers must remember that you get what you pay for.
These online productivity suites offer little to no security, and they cant be used offline.
Our tests show that its best to think of these applications as adjuncts or extensions to offline productivity suites.
Microsoft, along with full-featured desktop competitors such as StarOffice, OpenOffice.org and WordPerfect, have nothing to worry about—for now.
Of the three online apps we looked at, Ajax 13s AjaxLaunch has the most limitations for corporate use.
AjaxLaunch comprises the AjaxWrite word processor and the AjaxXLS spreadsheet program.
The free suite—written in AJAX, naturally—requires Firefox 1.5 or later and supports no other browsers, a pretty big limitation for many companies.
Our initial introduction to AjaxLaunch resulted in failed attempts to upload existing documents, but the feature suddenly started working a few days after we sent an e-mail to Ajax 13 to inquire about the problem.
AjaxWrite is a fairly bare-bones application, but it gets the job done.
After we finished working on an AjaxWrite document, we had a choice between saving to our hard drive or opening the document in Microsoft Word and saving it from there.
This ensures that no documents are saved on a server somewhere—a nice feature, especially for users working with sensitive documents.
AjaxXLS is currently in the viewer stage, meaning end users can upload spreadsheets to the application but can only view them.
A version of AjaxXLS that allows users to create, edit and save spreadsheets is under development, but theres been no word about when it will be available.
GOffice currently costs 99 cents a month, but Silveroffice executives said they are still testing the idea of charging for the service and that the office suite will likely be offered for free in the near future.
For the corporate user, GOffices biggest hindrance will be its inability to import Microsoft Word documents or to export to Microsoft Word.
This means that all documents created in GOffice will need to be exported in PDF format—which is fine, unless you want to be able to make changes to the documents.
GOffice officials told us that a Word import/export feature will be available soon.
We could import our test Excel spreadsheet to the GOffice Spreadsheet application, but once the spreadsheet was up on our screen, we couldnt find a way to save it or to export it.
Two days later, however, after we launched GOffice Spreadsheet again, the save button was present. (This highlights one of the issues with online applications—theyre ever changing.)
One feature we liked was the ability to e-mail a document as an attachment to any user from within the productivity suite.
The recipients of the attachments get an ad-like message stating that the documents were created in GOffice, but we felt it was a small price to pay for the functionality.
We did run into reliability issues during tests. For example, we encountered a run-time error when we saved a GOffice Write document.
When we tried to restart Write, the run-time error prevailed, leaving us no choice but to stop working on the document.
GOffice is free (practically), and some parts of it are in beta, so its not unreasonable to expect such errors.
But its not reasonable to expect a corporation to tolerate such errors.
Interestingly enough, the GOffice Web site has a support line that users can call when they need help—a nice touch, but not enough for enterprise computing needs.
A GOffice presentation application is in development but is not yet available in beta.
ThinkFree Office Online
ThinkFree Office Online
ThinkFree Office Online is the most mature of the three online apps we evaluated, offering great collaboration features that we hope will be picked up in future versions of Microsoft Office.
For example, users can invite other users to view and/or edit a particular document by sending an e-mail invitation via the ThinkFree Webtop.
ThinkFree Office Online comprises the Write word processor, the Show presentations application and the Calc spreadsheet.
The Webtop, or home page, gives users quick access to all three of these application and to saved documents and files.
A free ThinkFree Office Online account gets you 1GB of online storage that can be used to save documents created in ThinkFree Online.
Users also can upload documents or even executable files to the service. Files can be accessed from any computer with Internet connectivity.
One of the things that makes ThinkFree Office Online stand out is that it looks and acts very much like Microsoft Office.
The ThinkFree office suite uses Microsoft Office formats as its native file formats, and it looks enough like Microsoft Office 2003 that users should have no problems getting used to it.
Users also have the ability to save documents as PDFs (something that will likely not be possible with the forthcoming Office 2007).
We had no problems importing any of our Microsoft Office test documents into ThinkFree Office Online, but the formatting of the documents was slightly off after we worked on them in ThinkFree and then exported them back to Microsoft Office.
In our word processor document, for example, ThinkFree Office Online inserted line spaces that were not present in the original document.
Users will also notice that the online ThinkFree suite is substantially slower than the offline Microsoft Office.
ThinkFree Office Online is written in Java and therefore runs in any browser, but it can be sluggish at times, particularly when launching the suite or an application in the suite for the first time during a session.
What users likely will not notice, though, are the ads that support the free service: Advertisements run along the right-hand side of ThinkFree documents—akin to what a user would see in Googles Gmail application—but we didnt find the ads obtrusive or bothersome during tests.
We liked that ThinkFree Office Online is blog-friendly: The office suite allows users to create an entry and then publish directly to a blog.
ThinkFree supports a number of blog platforms, including TypePad, WordPress and Blogger.
A server-based version of ThinkFree Office is also available, and eWEEK Labs will be taking a look at it in the near future.
Senior Writer Anne Chen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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