Six weeks ago, Richard Stallman condemned network applications as proprietary software. He is right, of course -- not only is the source code for most network apps unavailable, but except in a few cases like Clipperz, using them means that you cede control of your data.
But if Stallman's observations aren't enough to stop you from using network apps, a comparison of a leading example like Google Apps with free and open source software (FOSS) such as OpenOffice.org should be. Not only does OpenOffice.org match Google Apps in convenience and availability, but, feature for feature, it leaves Google Apps writhing helplessly on its back and choking on FOSS dust.
Two years ago, when networks apps were just appearing, I hesitated to make such statements. Although network apps disappointed me in much the same way that early computer games once did, I told myself that I was only seeing proof of concepts, and that they would improve. Only, they haven't -- or, at least, not enough to matter.
If you aren't a programmer who enjoyed network apps for their novelty and the challenge of writing them, their main claim to your attention is their convenience and accessibility from any computer with an Internet connection. To anyone still using proprietary software, these advantages may seem worthwhile, but you can get the same advantages from FOSS. In fact, if you run OpenOffice.org from a flash drive, you not only don't need Internet, but you have a faster, more consistent response time and retain your privacy and control over your data as well.
And if you drill down to the individual apps? Then you find the same answer. Even if overlook OpenOffice.org's database, equation editor, or drawing program, none of which Google Apps has, comparing Google Apps to OpenOffice.org is like clubbing a staked-out bunny -- Google Apps is so far behind that the whole exercise seems like an exercise in pointless cruelty. Mostly, it consists of compiling a list of what Google Apps lacks.
According to one Sun Microsystems employee, the original StarOffice, whose code forms the basis of both OpenOffice.org and Sun's modern StarOffice, was designed so that its developers could use it to write their documentation. The story is plausible, because OpenOffice.org's desktop publishing features rival FrameMaker's, making it well-suited to designing text-oriented documents.
By contrast, Google Apps' Document interface is so painfully primitive that in many ways, you would be no worse off laying out your file with HTML tags. Just about the only advantages you have are a revision history, spell check, footnotes and basic find feature. Even some features like tables and tables of contents are supported in only the most basic forms, and, unlike in OpenOffice.org, any more complex formatting, is either time-consuming or impossible.
The one feature I've found that Document has that Writer lacks is the ability to look up a highlighted word. However, Writer's Thesaurus is almost as useful as a dictionary, and extensions like EuroOffice Dictionary add any missing functionality.
Otherwise, Writer's features allow far more options. In particular, Writer makes strong use of styles for everything from characters to pages and frames, making it a power app for those who take the time to learn it. Document, on the other hand, forces you to format manually -- in other words, to do exactly what word processor experts tell you not to do.
In comparison, in Document, you are lucky to have a feature at all, much less the ability to customize it or work with it in your own way. Put Document side by side with Writer, and you'll find that it lacks detailed document properties, fields, sections, cross-references, indexes, the ability to nest documents, insert video or audio, autocorrect, insert auto-text or manage mail merges -- and these are only from a quick scan of top-level features, and do not include all the features available when you drill down in paragraph or page styles. Sometimes, it seems that there are text editors with more features than Google Apps' Document.
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