Free Web-Based Office Productivity Apps

Are free Web-based apps truly a threat to Microsoft’s vise-grip on the enterprise? Plus: a list of the top free Web-based office productivity programs.
Posted December 26, 2006

Cynthia Harvey

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Are free Web-based apps truly a threat to Microsoft’s vise-grip on the enterprise? Plus: a list of the top free Web-based office productivity programs.

It’s been years since arguments about which word processor or spreadsheet app was better have dominated headlines. Whether or not it was the best, Microsoft Office got a stranglehold on the market and refused to let go. However, a new generation of rebel office productivity apps is taking advantage of Web 2.0 technology to challenge the software behemoth.

While none of these new apps have fully matured, they’re beginning to attract attention – both from potential customers and their number one rival. According to Jupiter Research, 11 percent of US companies use free Web-based applications. While that number may seem low, consider that these apps are in their infancy. Many are still in beta, and most have been available for less than two years. And Microsoft is definitely taking notice: they listed AjaxWrite, gOffice, ThinkFree, and several others as competition to Office in their August 10-K SEC filing.

So does Microsoft have reason to worry?

The answer is an unsatisfying yes and no. These new sites offer some benefits that Office simply can’t touch, while in other ways their apps are light-years behind in development.

Let’s Share

One of the biggest benefits of these Web-based apps isn’t really about online document creation, it’s about online storage. What’s so great about online storage? For starters, online collaboration.

While corporations have adopted a variety of solutions designed to encourage document sharing, many of us still revert to the tried and true—e-mailing a document to everyone who needs to have input—especially in those cases where everyone doesn’t work at the same company or have access to the same servers. Microsoft Word does make it easy to track everyone’s changes to a document, but only if everyone is working out of the same version. If a number of different people are making edits at the same time, incorporating all of those many (and sometimes conflicting) edits into a single document can quickly become a nightmare.

As the folks at Google Docs & Spreadsheets note, “Collaborative online applications make the communication and collaboration process much easier, whether you're working with colleagues on a sales proposal or putting together a sign-up sheet for the PTA bake sale.”

The process varies slightly depending on which site you use, but most of the sites work in pretty much the same way: After signing up for a free account, you can edit and save documents directly from your browser of choice. Instead of e-mailing documents to your co-workers, you send them a link where they can access the file. In many cases, you can watch them make edits live or even chat while everyone works on the documents together.

Wherever You Go, There It Is

Online storage also makes it easier to access your documents while you’re on the go. If you’re a road warrior, you probably already have a way to access company files from your laptop. However, these new sites allow anyone to finish up work-related documents at home without the clunky step of first e-mailing documents to your home PC.

In theory, you don’t even need a full-fledged PC to work on documents with a Web-based app — any device with a browser and a means of entering text will do. While you probably wouldn’t want to type an entire sales report from your phone, being able to update a couple of last-minute figures right from your phone or Blackberry might come in handy.

Mobility isn’t just for business users either. One early Google Docs & Spreadsheets user was the daughter of a divorced couple with joint custody. With Docs & Spreadsheets, she could access her homework files from either parent’s house.

Whose Server Do You Trust?

While enhanced collaboration and mobility are outright wins, the security and privacy issues surrounding Web-based apps are problematic.

On the one hand, the servers at Google or ThinkFree or Zoho probably get backed up more often than the average personal PC. And leaving your documents in their hands reduces your risk of losing them when you forget your laptop in the back of a cab.

But are these outside servers more secure than the average corporate server farm? Probably not.

Also, these services currently have relatively few users, so they haven’t yet attracted a lot of attention from hackers. However, as usage grows, it’s easy to imagine that attacks will increase.

In short, while it would be pretty easy to trust a Web-based app with your wedding invitation list, it might be tougher to trust it with your corporate sales strategy for the next quarter.

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