Executive Summary:

Online business application suites are appearing in increasing numbers. Do any pose a serious threat to the venerable Microsoft Office suite? To help answer that question, Windows IT Pro’s Senior Editor, Products Jeff James compares five low- or no-cost online office suites: Ajax13, Google Docs, Silveroffice gOFFICE, ThinkFree Premium, and the Zoho office suite.


When it comes to the workhorses of business software—word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation software—the Microsoft Office suite has ruled the corporate roost for more than a decade. Anyone remember WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, or Harvard Graphics? Like Pete Best—the onetime member of the Beatles who was dismissed before the band hit the big time—those once-famous applications were relegated to bystander status as Office became the preeminent office application suite. Corel, IBM, and Harvard Graphics were slow to port their wares to Windows, and history has proven the folly of being slow to adapt to changes in the market. Some might argue that Microsoft’s overly aggressive pricing and ability to bundle Office with new PCs had more of an impact on the fate of those applications, but the outcome isn’t in dispute: Microsoft became the dominant provider of business application software with Office and hasn’t looked back.

Fast forward to 2008: Today, Microsoft Office is fending off challenges from new competitors. Thanks in part to the remarkable growth of the Internet and the explosion of high-speed Internet access, a new generation of Web applications is beginning to compete with traditional office-productivity products such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Unlike traditional applications that are installed and maintained on a local client, these online apps live entirely on the Web, and their files reside on the application provider’s file servers. For example, Google Docs lets you create, edit, print, and save spreadsheet, word processor, and presentation documents without needing to install an application on your PC. These products also leverage the strengths of the Internet by allowing for the easy sharing of documents among office workers who are separated geographically from one another. And here’s the kicker: Most of these online apps are free (or very low cost), which has captured the interest of many cashstrapped IT managers.

The sheer number and diversity of online apps has mushroomed over the past few years: Online word processors such as Adobe Buzzword and Coventi Pages allow documents to be created, edited, and shared online, and online spreadsheets such as Team and Concept’s EditGrid and TrimPath’s Num Sum do the same for workbooks. Even Dan Bricklin—the co-creator of VisiCalc, the world’s first spreadsheet—has entered the online app arena with Software Garden’s wikiCalc. All of this development is good news, but do any of these online applications really have a chance of unseating Office as the premier business application suite? To find out, I’ve compared five of the most popular online office products that offer word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation capability: Ajax13, Silveroffice gOFFICE, Google Docs, ThinkFree Online, and the Zoho office suite. Instacoll’s Live Documents office suite was announced at press time, but Instacoll didn’t respond to our invitation to participate in this review. Transmedia’s Glide Business offers online applications but also includes extensive OS replacement features that are beyond the scope of this review.

Although Microsoft has been slow to respond to the challenge these newcomers present, it has begun to articulate a new “Software plus Services” strategy that attempts to combine the strengths of the traditional Office applications with the improved flexibility and collaborative nature of Web applications. The beta of Microsoft Live Office Workspace, which was announced just before press time, is a product of that strategy. (For more information, see the sidebar “Microsoft Office Live Workspace: A Winning Strategy?”.)

To test how well these online office suites compete with (and work together with) Microsoft Office, I created sample Excel, PowerPoint, and Word documents, then used each of the online suites to load, edit, save, and print each document. If any application couldn’t import the documents, I created an approximation of each document manually by using the relevant application’s editing tools. Table 1 provides a price- and feature-comparison summary of all five products.

Finally, in the interest of fairness, all of these products are classified as betas in development by their vendors. Nearly all exhibited minor glitches or bugs, so you’ll want to consider criticisms of the behavior of certain program functions in that context.

Google Docs
PROS: Tight integration with best of breed Web email; lots of storage space for documents; fast performance and good reliability; excellent document-sharing functionality
CONS: Not as feature-packed as ThinkFree and Zoho office suite; competitive solutions offer more applications, ability to edit documents offline
RATING: 3.5 / 5
PRICE: Free for standard edition; $50 per user, per year for Premier Edition
RECOMMENDATION: A good Microsoft Office alternative for home users and small businesses that don’t need complete Office compatibility but rather the ability to easily share and revise documents online.
CONTACT: Google • 800-225-5224 • www.google.com

Google Docs
Although Google Docs is the most well-known online product that replicates some of the functionality of Microsoft Office, it isn’t—as of this writing—the best Web-based alternative to Office. Google Docs is available in a free edition for home and small-business use, and Google also offers a Premier Edition that includes extra features—mainly security and support features— for business use. For example, the Premier Edition includes APIs that let Google Docs integrate easily with an existing IT infrastructure, offers 25GB of storage space per account (the free version offers 2.75GB), and provides access to Postini spam control and other business-oriented features.

Google Docs did an admirable job preserving the appearance of my sample Word document and left most of the formatting intact. The test PowerPoint document was imported without too many glitches, although some text overflowed existing text boxes, and font sizes varied from the original Word document. The Excel document was larger than the 1MB size limit Google Docs imposes for Excel documents, but smaller worksheets loaded without problems.

The ability to share documents with others and easily track shared document revisions is a slick feature, and the recent release of Google Gears—an API that enables online applications that use it to be run offline— promises to make Google Docs even more useful. You can save documents that you create with Google Docs locally for editing with other applications, but the current version of Google Docs can’t edit documents offline. (Ironically, Zoho Writer uses Google Gears to provide offline document-editing features.)

Google Docs can be a good choice for home and small-office work, but the limited feature set means it isn’t ready to replace Office for the majority of users. That said, the document collaboration features are usable, Google Gears shows great promise for improving integration between online and offline files, and Google will undoubtedly upgrade the functionality of Google Docs in the months and years to come.

Silveroffice gOFFICE
PROS: Lots of free templates and sample text; US mail and fax services for printed documents
CONS: Limited feature set; inability to import Word documents; general program stability and performance problems
RATING: 1.5 / 5
PRICE: $0.99 per month, per user
RECOMMENDATION: Free text templates and mail and fax services are unexpected (and welcome) features, but gOFFICE has little to offer beyond them. Because competitive products offer more features and stability for less cost, I don’t recommend gOFFICE.
CONTACT: gOFFICE • www.goffice.com

Silveroffice gOFFICE
Silveroffice’s gOFFICE combines an online word processor, spreadsheet, and desktop publishing program. The vendor claims that a graphical presentation application will be available soon, but it was unavailable for testing at press time.

gOFFICE is available in one edition for personal and business use priced at 99 cents per month. The spreadsheet module in gOFFICE offers the ability to import Excel documents, but the word processing application doesn’t: You need to either create your documents from scratch online or cut and paste them into the document workspace from another word processing program. The word processing and spreadsheet modules have a very limited feature set, but both are easy to use—the lack of program features will turn off many business users, but getting up to speed with how to create, edit, save, and print documents is a straightforward process.

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The gOFFICE applications include some nice features for personal use, including an assortment of free letterhead designs and sample text for a variety of common business uses, such as purchase orders, thankyou letters, and sales receipts. Silveroffice also provides a free document fax service to US phone numbers and free postal delivery of gOFFICE documents (limited to one mailing per week).

I encountered a number of glitches and head-scratching features when using gOFFICE, ranging from a tiny “gOFFICE.com” watermark included on all printed documents to module page headers that refer to gOFFICE as a “Free browser-based online office suite,” despite the fact that users are charged to use the service. (The gOFFICE Web site’s SSL certification expired in September 2007, which might make you think twice before entering your credit card number.) The online Help is anemic, and the current desktop publishing module lets you create only gift cards and business cards (although more templates are forthcoming).

Even at 99 cents a month, gOFFICE doesn’t compare well to more full-featured offerings from Zoho, ThinkFree, and Google. Even home and small-business users will be better served by choosing another product.

ThinkFree Premium
PROS: Closely approximates Microsoft Office look and feel; excellent document sharing options; affords ability to work offline with some documents; good document import and export functionality
CONS: Slower performance with large documents than competitors; comparatively slow pace of updates and improvements to core applications
RATING: 4 / 5
PRICE: Free for ThinkFree Premium; $30 per user per year for ThinkFree Server Edition
RECOMMENDATION: It still can’t replace Microsoft Office in most office environments, but ThinkFree Premium comes closest to providing a Web-based, low-cost alternative to Office for home and smallbusiness users than the competition.
CONTACT: ThinkFree • support@thinkfree.comwww.thinkfree.com

ThinkFree Premium
Someone once said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s the case, Microsoft should be blushing—ThinkFree is the closest thing yet to a literal translation of Office to an online environment. ThinkFree offers packages aimed at corporate and enterprise users, making it the best choice for business users looking for a light-duty online alternative to Office.

ThinkFree is available in a number of variants that are available at low or no cost. A desktop version installs on a client machine and provides a subset of Office functionality. ThinkFree Online lets desktop users edit and create online documents that are hosted by ThinkFree. ThinkFree Server lets companies run the ThinkFree software on their own Web server. I chose to test ThinkFree Premium, which introduces the ability to work with (and sync) online and offline documents. It also provides 24-hour technical support and file synchronization options that make it the best choice for small businesses.

Whereas the other products in this comparison have developed their own interface design for each of their application modules, the ThinkFree UI strongly resembles Microsoft Office 2000 and 2003. Like Google Docs, ThinkFree features a common online workspace to which you can upload Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents for editing. ThinkFree Premium also lets you access documents locally so you can edit them when you’re not connected to the Internet. Two editing options are offered: A quick edit option is designed for creating simple online documents; a power edit option allows the creation and editing of more complex documents that are compatible with their Microsoft Office equivalents.

Other thoughtful touches abound: You can upload multiple files from a single screen, the online Help is verbose and actually helpful, and the file-sharing features are easy to find and use. On the downside, getting to my online files seemed to take longer than it did with some of the other products, and editing tasks periodically took a second or two longer than expected. ThinkFree lacks the vast quantity of applications (and frequency of updates) that Zoho offers, and it might trail Google when it comes to email and calendaring functionality. Office rules the roost when it comes to mid- to-heavy application use, but ThinkFree Premium is worth a look as the best of the current breed of online alternatives to Office for home and small-business users.

Zoho Office Suite
PROS: Includes more than a dozen applications; lots of program features; robust import and export capability; affords the ability to work offline (via Google Gears) with Zoho Write documents; high-traffic (and helpful) user support forums; frequent and high-quality application updates
CONS: Bright, playful interface seems more focused on home users; some performance problems; Zoho Show import problems with some PowerPoint files
RATING: 3.5 / 5
PRICE: Free
RECOMMENDATION: Only the narrowest of margins kept the Zoho family of applications from earning the top spot in this comparison. Zoho excels as a viable alternative to Microsoft Works (and similar application suites) for personal use—just a few more business-oriented features would see it emerge as the Microsoft Office alternative to beat.
CONTACT: Zoho • www.zoho.com

Zoho Office Suite
Like many of the other products in this comparison, Zoho has basic office-suite application tasks covered: Zoho Writer, Zoho Sheet, and Zoho Show provide basic word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation functions, respectively. (In this review, I refer to the Zoho office applications collectively as the Zoho office suite.) Where Zoho excels is in the depth and breadth of products it offers: Nearly a dozen online applications do everything from project management (Zoho Projects) to Web conferencing and database creation, in addition to customer relationship management (CRM—Zoho CRM) and wiki software (Zoho Wiki), and all are free.

In terms of document compatibility, Zoho Writer and Zoho Sheet loaded my sample Word and Excel documents without any formatting problems. Zoho Show loaded the sample PowerPoint document with a few visual glitches, mainly disappearing borders and some unusual font sizes. Conversely, most Zoho modules feature impressive export options once you’ve made changes to your online documents. For example, Zoho Sheet can export worksheets in XLS, Open Document spreadsheet (ODS), OpenOffice.org spreadsheet (SXC), Gnumeric, CSV, HTML, Extensible Hyper- Text Markup Language (XHTML), and PDF formats. Zoho also offers a Zoho plug-in for Office that lets users edit and save documents directly into Zoho Writer and Zoho Sheet from Word and Excel, respectively. A free Zoho plug-in for Microsoft Office lets you save files locally.

Like Google Docs and ThinkFree Premium, Zoho provides robust support for sharing documents with other users online. During the course of my evaluation, Zoho released a slew of new updates and enhancements, and the frenetic pace of product updates is scheduled to continue.

Zoho may lack the professional appearance and Office-oriented feature set that ThinkFree Premium includes, but Zoho wins points for the breadth of the applications it offers, the rapid pace of its upgrades, and a very active online community that is frequented by many Zoho developers.

Ajax13
PROS: Clean module interface design; core applications load quickly
CONS: Lack of features; lots of import and export bugs and glitches; quirky, counterintuitive file-loading dialogs; requires Mozilla Firefox 1.5
RATING: 1 / 5
PRICE: Free
RECOMMENDATION: Nearly all of the Ajax13 applications we tested had serious bugs, quirks, or simply didn’t function at all. Granted, this software is in beta, but so are all the other products in this comparison. This one simply isn’t worth the time or effort needed to make it work.
CONTACT: Ajax13 • www.ajax13.com

Ajax13
In addition to being the name of a powdery household cleanser my mother was fond of using, AJAX (the acronym stands for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) describes a group of Web-focused programming techniques that allow rich, feature-packed Web applications to run with respectable performance in a Web browser. The AJAX programming methodology is an important part of most of the products featured in this comparison and lends its name to the last online office suite I examined: Ajax13.

Ajax13 is actually a compilation of five applications: ajaxWrite (word processing), ajaxSketch (drawing), ajaXLS (spreadsheet), ajaxPresents (presentation) and ajaxTunes (a music player). Like most of the other products in this comparison, the product is free. Getting started with any of these applications can take some time because the Ajax13 suite requires the use of Mozilla Firefox 1.5 to function properly. Ajax13 doesn’t work with Safari, Microsoft Internet Explorer, or Opera, although Ajax13 has stated that it’s working on extended browser support. This requirement alone is a big negative, but weak browser support is the least of Ajax13’s problems.

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AjaxWrite—a simple word processor that sports a clean, minimalist interface—was the first module I tried. I attempted to load the test document, then waited. And waited. Then waited some more. After about 10 minutes of watching an animated loading screen that resembled a history of Google’s stock price, I cancelled the import and moved to the ajaxPresents module. Not much luck here either: The program spit out an error message each time I tried to load the sample PowerPoint document. Hoping that the third time was the charm, I turned to the ajaXLS spreadsheet viewer, only to be blocked by a frozen dialog box.

To be fair, these Ajax13 applications—like all the other products in this comparison— are beta software. The Ajax13 suite does have some laudable features, namely clean interface design, fast core-application load times, and a well-populated user forum. However, these few positive features can’t make up for some crippling bugs, curious feature omissions, bizarre load and save dialogs, and a general lack of stability. Ajax13 might be fine for Web-focused hobbyists who have use for some of its more esoteric features, but anyone else should give this online office suite a wide berth and look elsewhere.

Are the Days of Microsoft Office Numbered?
Can competing online office suites truly replace the ubiquitous Microsoft Office? If you’re an IT manager at a medium to large enterprise, the answer is a definitive no. As promising as these applications are, they lack the depth of content, robust security features, and massive support infrastructure that midsized-to-large enterprises need. Because ThinkFree Premium comes closest to reaching those goals for light-duty business use, I’ve designated it my Editor’s Choice. (But don’t count out Zoho and Google: At their current rate of development, both the Zoho office suite and Google Docs might have launched more updates and improvements to their products by the time you read this.) Only ThinkFree Premium, Google Docs, and the Zoho suite were able to load and allow editing of all three sample documents. Ajax13 and gOFFICE are outmatched in nearly every category in this comparison.

For small-business and personal use, the best online office suites in this comparison can be attractive solutions. As an alternative, IT pros running on a tight application budget—or those who prefer to keep their office applications offline and local—might take a look at the open-source alternatives to Microsoft Office: OpenOffice. org, IBM Lotus Symphony, and Sun Microsystems’ StarOffice. Each is based on the OpenOffice.org code base, and most provide the bulk of the features that Office does at no cost. (A StarOffice license costs $69.95 per user, who can install that software on 5 machines.)

Whether we’re discussing online Office workalikes or products like OpenOffice.org, it’s clear that there are now more options for business desktop applications than ever before. Microsoft Office still dominates the market, but changes are coming. Office Live Workspace might be a passable stopgap for Office users who want to share documents online, but Microsoft clearly needs to do a better job of integrating the existing Microsoft Office suite with the Internet. The days of Microsoft ruling the desktop application market virtually unopposed are over. We’ve seen only the opening skirmishes of what will undoubtedly be a long battle over how people should create, edit, and share documents between computers and across the Internet. The ensuing competition will not only be entertaining to watch but will also signify that consumers have more products and solutions to choose from—and that’s always good news.