Online office suite reviews

Head for the cloud and work from anywhere with the new wave of web apps.
 
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02.Which suite?

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.

 

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