Online office suite reviews

Head for the cloud and work from anywhere with the new wave of web apps.
 
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01 .Introduction

Woman holding computer on her head

In brief

  • Online office programs give you most of what you need for an office suite.
  • Many online programs are free for individual users.
  • Some let you work offline as well.
  • You need a broadband connection to use them effectively.

Just as netbooks have given more freedom to take your computing anywhere for browsing, email and messaging, online office suites provide the programs you need to be just as productive as if you had stayed at your desk.

Online office suites come under the category of cloud computing, in which the programs and documents are stored on the internet ‘in the cloud’. There’s a lot of buzz about cloud computing and netbooks this year. These emerging technologies go hand-in-hand. It’s a marriage made, if not in heaven, then certainly up there in the cloud — a small, light and cheap laptop computer using free productivity programs and storage simply by connecting to the net. It’s a boon for mobile users.

Please note: this information was current as of May 2009 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


Should you take to the cloud?

None of the online office programs are as powerful or full-featured as their locally installed PC equivalents but could provide a valuable supplement to existing PC-based office suites. They have the advantages of:

  • Anywhere access.
  • Secure remote storage.
  • Multi-user remote collaboration and sharing.
  • Integration with other related online programs.

If you need to access files when away from your home or office an online office suite could be the answer. If you regularly save information on a USB key or email yourself documents to work on later, you could find an online solution an indispensible alternative to help you avoid problems in keeping track of document versions — you’re always working with the same version. Likewise, it’s a good way to allow others to see documents and add their own changes without losing track.

Choosing which online office suite ultimately suits you will depend not only on the programs offered, but also their look and feel which can vary dramatically. Ultimately, this can be very much an individual choice. And the decision doesn’t necessarily have to be final. You can try all of them without having to pay a cent and the common support for standard file formats means you can transfer your documents from one to another (via your local PC) if you later find you want to switch.

If you want to travel ultralight and just write, email and web-browse from almost anywhere then a netbook and online programs might be all you need.

Unless you’re a dedicated netbook user though, for the time being at least it’s likely that no matter what online office suite you choose, it won’t replace a suite of programs on your PC. They’re far from flawless and some of them require a good dose of patience and tolerance to use.

However, they’ve reached the stage of maturity that it’s well worth trying them out. Only after using online programs for a while will you be able to realistically tell if and when you could happily make the transition to the cloud full-time.

 
 

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The idea of working online may be attractive to you, but which suite do you go with? It’s not really a level playing field up in the cloud. They all try to address the same issue, but some take very different approaches. Here’s how a few of the main ones compare:

Google Docs and Spreadsheets

google.com.au Screen shot of google products
One of the first to take office applications online was Google. Rather than just offering a Microsoft Office lookalike, Google has taken a different approach. It provides users with the core functionality of an office suite, but goes well beyond a standard four-program suite by offering an impressive array of free programs.

Google has Gmail (Google Mail); Google Docs and Spreadsheets (compatible with Word and Excel respectively); Google Calendar (online scheduling); Google Notebook (captures, stores and lets you organise web page excerpts); Google Talk (instant messaging and voice calling); Picasa web albums (online photo sharing) and much more.

To see all the Google programs, go to google.com and click ‘more’ from the top left menu, then from the drop-down menu click even more.

Though Google Docs and Spreadsheets may not have some of the bells and whistles of some other suites, it’s relatively fast and reliable. You can also upload, or even email, existing documents from your desktop PC directly to your online account.

Google Apps can also provide offline editing of documents via Google Gears, a browser plug-in that enables web applications to run offline. Once set up, it will synchronise all your Google documents to your local PC so you can work on them without an internet connection, then update changes to Google’s online server when you reconnect.

However, Google’s offline editing capability currently works for documents only. You can only view spreadsheets and presentations and you can’t actually create new docs offline. The workaround for this is to create a few blank documents while online and save them for offline access.  

Zoho

zoho.com Screen shot of Zoho programs
Much like Google, Zoho’s laundry list of free personal online programs is extensive, encompassing email, word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, organiser, online document management, note taking, a wiki tool, online chat and more. Zoho also has an impressive list of commercial business programs for databases, invoicing, meetings, project management and so on.

Like Google, Zoho is compatible with Microsoft file formats and provides offline access to documents using Google Gears, but for that reason also suffers from similar limitations as Google — reading only of spreadsheets and presentations and no offline creation of new documents.

As with ThinkFree (below), Zoho lets you sign in using a Google ID, but also accepts Yahoo IDs as well.

Zoho Writer provides plenty of readymade templates for your documents. The Zoho QuickRead plug-in (available for Firefox and Internet Explorer) lets you open Microsoft Office and Open Office files on the web directly into Zoho, where you can read, edit and save them to your desktop or post them directly to a blog.

The Zoho plug-in for Microsoft Office lets you work offline on documents and spreadsheets with Word and Excel and save them directly to Zoho online. You can also publish local documents for the world to see via Zoho Share.  

ThinkFree Office Live

thinkfree.com Screen shot of Thinkfree programs
This formidable web-based office suite includes the standard word processing, spreadsheet and presentation programs, plus blogging, PDF creation and collaboration programs. It also supports the new Microsoft Office 2007 file formats and gives users 1GB of free storage. ThinkFree programs may look familiar, as they’re designed to look and feel like you’re using Microsoft Office.

You can register for a free account at the ThinkFree website or if you can login to Google, you already have a ThinkFree login — you can sign in using your Google details without creating a new account at thinkfree.com.

From ThinkFree’s online My Office page, you can create new documents, spreadsheets and presentations, plus share files for others to view and edit. ThinkFree also has Note, which includes readymade templates for easy creation of web pages and posting to blogs. Pointing the way to future development, ThinkFree also has a demo version for viewing and synchronising files on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

If you need offline access, synchronisation with online and a full-featured Microsoft Office alternative, you can download ThinkFree Office desktop version, which costs $US50 and is available for Windows, Linux and Mac OS X. ThinkFree files are interchangeable between these three different operating systems. There’s also a slimmed down edition designed specifically for netbooks — ThinkFree Mobile Netbook Edition.

BigPond has licensed the ThinkFree Office technology to create BigPond Office (bigpondoffice.com.au), which puts a BigPond face on the suite and includes unmetered downloads for most BigPond Broadband Members (non-BigPond customers need to pay a monthly fee of $7.95), though you only get a relatively small 250MB of storage.  

Microsoft Office Live Workspace

 officelive.com Screenshot of Officelive
Quite simply, this is Microsoft Office 2007 for the web. Released in March 2008, it’s still in Beta, like many online office programs, but Office Live Workspace works well. You can create text documents (called notes), lists (basic spreadsheets), plus to-do lists, contact lists and event lists, all using a spreadsheet format.

Users can have multiple workspaces and each new workspace comes with templates for the types of documents you might need, such as an agenda, notes, flyer, invitation, list of invitees and to-do list.

Key features include an activity panel that shows everything happening in a workspace at a glance; email notifications about changes, workspaces or documents; bookmarking of workspace items; and drag-and-drop uploading of multiple items from the desktop. You can also synchronise your Contact, Tasks and Event lists with Outlook 2003 and 2007, and export any workspace list to Excel.

As with other online services you need to register with the Office Live Workspace service online to create a free user account, or you can use an existing Windows Live ID. If you’re a user of Microsoft Office on your PC, Office Live Workspace has some downloadable extras that integrate closely with the desktop version of Office so you can actually work with the Microsoft programs you already know — Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

If you install the Office Live Add-in, you can open and save files directly from Microsoft Office XP, 2003 or 2007. It also lets you access and preview your documents even without the desktop version of Office installed. It provides password-protected document sharing so you can control who can view and edit your work.

Microsoft says Office Live Workspace beta will remain free, but may later carry advertising and may also later charge for additional features or services.

Acrobat.com

acrobat.com Screen shot of Acrobat programs
Adobe has thrown its considerable weight and name behind the cloud computing concept with the introduction of acrobat.com, an online productivity suite built using Adobe AIR as the foundation. Adobe AIR combines several web technologies to deliver web and office applications to desktop users.

Acrobat.com gives you a word processor (Buzzword), live web conferencing (ConnectNow), PDF creation (Create PDF), file sharing (Share) and file storage (My Files). It provides strong emphasis on online collaboration, allowing multiple users simultaneously.

Acrobat.com provides a different look and feel to the traditional office suite and doesn’t include a spreadsheet program. To use the suite properly, you’ll need Adobe Flash Player and Adobe Reader installed on your PC.

Advantages

Online office programs are not just for netbooks or owners of more powerful laptops. Anyone with a PC can sign up, log in and start creating, editing, saving and sharing text documents, spreadsheets, presentations, calendars and much more. Many of the programs are free, and can be used on almost any computer that can access the net via a web browser. For example, you might have a PC at work and at home and maybe a laptop to carry around. You can fire up your web browser on any of these computers and use exactly the same program and documents, saving your changes centrally in the cloud.

And you don’t have to be alone. One of the big benefits of online office programs is collaboration. You can share documents via the internet, with multiple users editing and annotating, in some cases simultaneously. You can control access to particular users and track all changes made by your virtual workgroup, which can be spread across the office, the country or around the globe.

Online suites are starting to offer big competition for that desktop productivity Goliath, Microsoft Office, giving you alternative word processing, spreadsheet and presentation programs with similar features and even a familiar look and feel. They also offer file format compatibility, which means you can create, edit and save documents interchangeably with Microsoft Office. Or that’s the theory, anyway. In practice, complex documents may not retain all of their formatting and features. For simple documents however, it’s usually not a problem.

Another advantage of computing in the cloud is that you don’t have to worry about backing up your work. It’s done by online file servers, and because online office suites work through a web browser, they’re fully cross-platform. You have the flexibility of being able to use them from any Windows, Mac or Linux computer with a net connection.

Limitations

 Cloud computing has a few limitations though:

  • Some programs can be fairly basic in their feature set, compared to their desktop equivalents.
  • Complex documents may lose some formatting.
  • For services without offline editing capability you need a working internet connection to be able to do anything at all.
  • Even with broadband, it’s slower than accessing programs and data on your local hard drive.

Depending on the complexity of your work, the first issue may not even be a problem for you. Most people use relatively few of the features of Microsoft Office, and online office programs will generally have most of the main features that you need.

Online goes offline

To get around the slow speed of the net and the need for a live internet connection while working, some of the major online office suites are now offering offline access. This means you keep a copy of your documents on your local hard drive, working on them with local versions of the office programs, then when you connect to the internet all changes and new documents are uploaded to your data store in the cloud.

This offline/online access can make cloud computing workable even when away from net access, such as when travelling. Keep working on your documents in the train, plane or car then synchronise everything with your next net connection.

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