[AI] ARE ONLINE OFFICE APPS THE FUTURE?

Sanjay ilovecold at gmail.com
Mon Apr 26 10:49:32 EDT 2010


Neil McAllister pits three online productivity suites against the desktop
version of Microsoft Office.  Which will triumph?

A spreadsheet in your browser?  A word processor on the web?  If you believe
Google, soon virtually all software will be web-based.  Google offers a complete
suite of office productivity apps that run in your browser, but it isn't the
only one.  A number of competitors are working on web-based suites, including
Zoho and Microsoft.

In addition to the typical features of desktop productivity suites, each
offering promises greater integration with the web, including collaboration and
online publishing features not available with traditional apps.

But even with today's speedy browsers, can browser-based apps truly replace
Microsoft Office for real-world work?  We put Google Docs, Zoho and the
technical preview of Microsoft Office Web Apps to the test.

Google Docs 

No company is more focused on web-based applications than Google, so you'd
expect its suite to be the best.  However, the most amazing thing about Google
Docs turned out to be just how woefully inadequate it is for serious work.

When you log into Google Docs, you're greeted with a familiar, Google-style
user interface: spare, reserved, understated; but while this elegant approach
works wonders for Google's search products, it fails to disguise Doc's
frustrating lack of features.

Google added support for Microsoft Office 2007 file formats in June but, even
with the older Office formats, Docs chokes on all but the most rudimentary
formatting.  We found that anything more complicated than a simple column of
text was distorted.

A sample file created in Word 2007 revealed just how many features Docs gets
wrong.  Tab stops, paragraph spacing, page margins and placed images all move
around indiscriminately.  Curly quotes import properly, but that's actually a
problem, since there's no way to type them in Docs.

Revisions made using Word's Track Changes feature are jumbled together as
plain text; the same happens for Comments.  Page headers and footers are
converted to inline text at the top of the document.  Docs doesn't even
preserve pagination.

The same goes for Excel files.  Basic figures and formulae are imported
properly, but don't expect much else.  Images are discarded, along with any
formatting beyond simple cell sizing and shading.  Charts embedded in Excel 2007
appear as big, white boxes labelled 'No Data'.  Charts embedded in Excel
2003 or earlier, meanwhile, simply disappear.

Docs' graphing engine is disappointing.  There's no support for features
such as trend lines and no formatting options.  The output is hardly
presentation-ready.

Google Docs does an adequate job of preserving the basic look and feel of
PowerPoint 2003 files but, again, it's a poor substitute for Microsoft's
desktop suite.  Graphics appear blurry and resampled, text moves around without
warning and animations and transitions are eliminated.  PowerPoint 2007 isn't
supported.

Despite its faults, Docs incorporates some intriguing ideas.  If the goal was
simply to mimic the current office tools on the web, Docs would be a miserable
failure - but Google is looking at the bigger picture.

In keeping with Google's idea of working 'in the cloud', Docs discards
files and folders.  Instead, it presents a chronological view of your documents.
Similarly, Docs maintains an internal version history for each document,
allowing you to revert to an earlier draft.

Rather than simply recreating desktop apps in the browser, Docs is web-centric.
You can import documents via email or from the web, or embed them in blogs or
websites to share with the public.  There's a user interface for embedding
YouTube videos in your presentations.  There's also basic version control to
allow multiple authors to work on the same document.  Forget paper; with Google
Docs, it's all about sharing, collaboration and online publishing.

Most of us in the real world have given up on the paperless office, so it's
disappointing that Docs' printing is mediocre.  As we noted earlier, it
struggles with pagination - particularly where images come into play.
Furthermore, fonts that render correctly onscreen may not print right, while
graphics come out blurry and jagged.

For all its ideas, Google Docs is missing so much that ijust about everybody
will be disappointed in some way.

Zoho 

Zoho offers a slightly different take on the online office suite.  Zoho makes
far more of an effort than Google to mimic the look and feel of traditional
desktop applications.  The results might seem more familiar to new users, but
they also underscore the limitations of this strategy.

One problem is that Zoho's offering seems to have grown rapidly, with little
thought to consistency.  A pull-down menu makes moving between apps simple, but
the lack of a common interface undermines the illusion that this is an
integrated suite.

Zoho also encourages web-based publishing and collaboration.  Here, its minor
advantages over Google Docs include the ability to post to blogs directly, to
generate a 'doc roll' of recent documents for embedding in a website, plus
integration with EchoSign for digital signatures.

Zoho is slowly implementing more advanced features, too.  Its spreadsheet offers
rudimentary support for pivot tables and charts, while the word processor
features a very basic mail-merge facility.  Most remarkable is the
spreadsheet's elementary support for Visual Basic macros.

But while the suite is adequate as a lightweight set of productivity
applications, advanced users will be dismayed by its lack of sophisticated
features and its half-hearted implementations of existing ones.

Zoho's support for Microsoft Office file formats is better than that of Google
Docs, but only slightly.  Page layout and image placement in the word processor
are questionable, and revisions made using Track Changes get corrupted.

Support for Excel 2007 embedded graphs is a bit better than Google's, but the
output is similarly disappointing.  Imported presentations are reduced to static
slideshows, losing their animated transitions.  And, as with Google Docs,
printing is unreliable, particularly where fonts and images are concerned.

Zoho's suite is still in beta status, which may explain why it froze up more
often than Google Docs.  A page reload usually solves the problem, in our
experience.

Zoho's real strength is its breadth.  It offers a whole range of back-office
business apps, including groupware, conferencing, invoice management, project
management and more.  Most are free for a modest amount of storage space; for
increased capacity and a greater number of users, Zoho charges a per-head
subscription fee.

Zoho could appeal to small businesses or organisations looking for a suite of
applications that don't require dedicated IT staff to install and maintain.
Although it seems unlikely that Zoho's online productivity apps will meet your
needs as well as desktop software would, it's nonetheless a cost-effective
alternative.

Microsoft Office Web Apps 

Although Google Docs and Zoho are both flawed, Microsoft could hardly have
expected to take the competition lying down.  The software giant is currently in
the process of finishing a web-based version of its Office suite, due to launch
simultaneously with the release of Office 2010.  Office Web Apps was available
in technical preview at press time, but it's already shaping up to become a
formidable challenger to Zoho and Google.

Nowhere is this more evident than when you import your first document into the
Word web app.  Unlike its competitors, Microsoft's online suite reproduces
.doc and .docx files with absolute fidelity.  Fonts, page spacing, headers,
footers, auto-text entries and footnotes all appear exactly as they would in the
desktop version of Word.

Images show up where they ought to, even when placed behind text.  Documents
that mix page sizes, or that alternate portrait and landscape modes from page to
page, load correctly.  And printing is flawless.

The PowerPoint files we tried yielded similarly impressive results.  Images
retained most of their quality and text remained where it should.  And, unlike
Google Docs or Zoho, the PowerPoint app preserved animated transitions between
slides.

You'd be forgiven for assuming that Microsoft relies on ActiveX controls or
other Internet Explorer (IE) trickery to achieve all this, but you'd be wrong.
IE users are offered an improved file upload user interface, but everything else
renders exactly the same in Safari and Firefox.

But there's a catch.  During the technical preview, documents imported into
the online versions of Word and PowerPoint are read-only.  Whether Microsoft can
recreate the editing experience of its desktop apps remains to be seen.

The Excel web app does allow editing, however, and the results are mixed.  It
reproduced Excel files with far greater fidelity than either Google Docs or
Zoho.  Multiple authors can open the same document simultaneously, and their
changes are updated for all users in real time.  Microsoft says a similar
capability will not be available in the Word app at launch time.

Disappointingly, there's no revision history feature.  It's fairly simple to
accidentally corrupt an entire worksheet with a few clicks of the mouse and,
given that the document saves itself automatically at regular intervals, the
Revert to Saved button wasn't much comfort.  We're hopeful that this
situation will improve as Microsoft's Web Apps suite matures.



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