As part of my ongoing, personal economic bailout plan, this week I began tinkering around with a couple of the free, online office suites that are available. After all, why shell out a few hundred clams for Microsoft Office when others are giving it away for free? Unfortunately, after a week of getting to know Google Docs and Zoho Writer, here I am typing this week's column from the comfort and safety of a bought-and-paid-for copy of Microsoft Word. Why? Because I came to realize something about myself over the course of this week: At 30 years old, I'm already an old fart.
More on that later.
The week's experiment went off like so: I used Firefox on a Mac to put Google Docs and Zoho Writer through their respective paces. I played around with their Excel and PowerPoint equivalents as well, but I don't often use those programs anyway, so I concentrated more on the word processors. I also gave Microsoft Live Office a whirl, but without the ability to actually edit or create documents, the word "useless" doesn't even begin to describe the Microsoft experience. So, I won't be mentioning it from here on out.
The first thing that struck me about the Google and Zoho apps is that they're absolutely bulging with features. Just like in Word, you can create docs, type text, style it however you want, insert and resize images, add tables, do bulleted lists and print. Both make it a snap to share and collaborate with others, and both allow you to work offline via Google Gears. Google Docs even places a nifty little shortcut icon on your desktop, which goes a long way to making it feel like you're using a "real" program, for lack of a better word. (Zoho also puts a shortcut on your desktop, but it's a generic bookmark). Both programs let you import and export a variety of document formats, including Word, OpenDocument, RTF and PDF. Zoho even supports Microsoft's new .docx format. They also allow you to use familiar keyboard shortcuts, such as Ctrl+S, Ctrl+P and good old Ctrl+Z.
Of course, neither app is without its problems. Zoho, for example, has a "thesaurus" function, but I can't figure out for the life of me how to actually sub in a word short of manually cutting and pasting it in. Zoho also removed random spaces here and there in some of the docs I imported. Google, on the other hand, doesn't have the ruler up top for adjusting margins (at least, I couldn't locate it) and doesn't support adding links to images. Both apps exported to Microsoft Word with varying degrees of success. Google's tabbing and image alignment was slightly off, while Zoho placed some hideous, un-editable lines at the top and bottom of every document I exported. Ideally, Microsoft Word would never have to enter the picture, but let's be realistic: When I submit an invoice to someone or file a story with my editor, am I going to send an invitation to view the file on Zoho, or am I just going to send through a Word doc?
For both Google and Zoho, the offline experiences leave a lot to be desired. The spreadsheet and slideshow programs aren't made available offline by either—just the word processor, which itself has been severely crippled in both cases. Neither lets me create a new document offline, nor can I spell check an existing one. In Zoho Writer, images I've placed into documents are sometimes stripped out when in offline mode, which is completely frustrating. My biggest problem with offline mode is that I have no idea where my documents actually are. They seem to exist only within my browser window, and with the export function unavailable I have no way of backing them up or putting them on a thumb drive to share with a friend (Remember, I'm offline, so can't email them).
These are all pretty small qualms, though, and ones I'm sure will be smoothed out in the coming months or years. In reality, the depth of features made available by both office suites is nothing short of incredible. Take a spin on Zoho's PowerPoint counterpart, Show, and it doesn't take a crystal ball to see that these online apps are the future.
Still, I'm not sold, and it's my own frame of mind that's to blame. For me to completely abandon Microsoft Office would require a major shift in the way I think about personal computing—one I'm not sure I'm capable of making. For me, the PC and the Internet are still two very distinct entities. I don't think kids growing up today can even conceive of a computer that doesn't go online. For them, there's little difference between typing a paper in Microsoft Word and typing search terms into Google. It's all the same playing field. I'm the opposite, and maybe that's because I remember the day my family got its first 14.4-baud modem. Even though opening Firefox, IE or Safari is now as seamless a process as opening up Word or Excel, I still think of "going online" as something completely separate to what's happening on my PC locally.
I like having the computing power on my actual computer. With Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop and whatever else I have installed, I feel like I can get things done whether I have an Internet connection or not. I also like my documents in a folder that I always have immediate access to. I really can't imagine a future in which I'm required to go online to run a program or retrieve a document. And, what about outages? This past summer, Gmail suffered a major system-wide collapse, which left me without email or access to my contacts for hours. The same thing happened just yesterday to my Hotmail account—and yes, I really do still have a Hotmail account. If the same thing happened to Zoho and I suddenly couldn't get a hold of an important story or presentation, I'd flip out. And there's that whole issue of privacy. I'm sorry, but I'm not sure I want the Excel sheet I keep all of my finances on sitting out on some server somewhere, or being sent across the Internet into a Web browser.
If all of this makes me old school, so be it. Now, excuse me while I chase the neighborhood kids off of my lawn…
There is one major hole in your review of alternatives to MSWord - you forgot about Open Office!
I use Mac at home and WinXP at work and have OpenOffice installed on both machines (same with Firefox and Thunderbird) and successfully coexist with the Word world. The best part about using this is that I get the same experience on OSX and XP, goodbye OS wars.
Open source, cross-platform software is the way of the future and I highly recommend it to everyone.
I realize the title of your article is about Online Office Suites but you really can't compare apples with oranges. Give OpenOffice a try and thank me later. BTW, there is a version of OO specifically designed for Macs called NeoOffice and it works great.
I know this has been said, but it can't be said enough. You forgot about Open Office!!
Even though the article was about online office software, you did mention that you had to go back to the comfort of microsoft office. Well, you didn't have to do that. Nine out of ten homies agree: Open office is the shiaznezz.
well yes i do agree that kids think it pretty much the same with word and google, except for the fact that typing up a paper is longer and much more boring, but you might want to try asking kids next time how THEY feel
Of course, there are lots of problems with current online office suite.
There are two reasons I support online office:
1. One important fact we can't ignore is that the online documents can be edited and viewed anywhere anytime. Sometimes I revised my presentation all night but forgot to copy the file (in my PC) with me the next morning and went into the office. So I had to go back home and get it. If it is online, things will be different, you can easily retrieve the file from your office machine.
2. And crisis (by virus or mis-operation) can happen to any PC, but it is less likely for a big internet company such as google or zoho. It is much safer to let file online there.
However, I just wait for google docs and zoho to improve their compatibility with Microsoft Office, so there will be much more ease in online documenting.
A big issue with Open source office is that I can not find any plug-in for embedded equation editing.
Very good article for if you want to use software not installed or unable to install on the HDD.
But I am with everyone else open office is a brilliant counterpart to the Microsoft thuggery that we have grown use to. There is also gimp for a photoshop equivalent, maybe doesn't have the cushy interface of adobe but works.
There is loads of open source software out there but its taking the time and the confidence to look. It would brilliant to be able to purchase a PC, thats it just the PC not the plethora of software that comes with Windows.
As some comments already said before; the author forgets the OPEN OFFICE!! It is free, good and compatible with MSOffice.
I'm using it in 4 PC's at a business except one that needs MSAccess, and for cases of any incompatibility (minimum).
For business, let's say you can have one or 2 MSOffice and the rest O.Officce for free. You save money and works fine.That's a good point.
Regarding the online software, sorry but personally I don't trust it for business yet.
I'm going to add my voice to the chorus: you forgot about or ignored OpenOffice!
One of my problems with using online software like that is it can and will be updated/upgraded without your knowledge - and that could lead to compatibility issues with documents that you don't touch for long periods of time.
Another is security. If I'm working on a document and store it out in the web, even with 1024-bit crypto and passwords out the wazoo, I still can't be guaranteed of the document's security or privacy. I simply live with the concept that if I put it on the web, it's not private. Paranoid, maybe. Better safe than sorry, and in a world where black-hats are looking for anything and everything that they can sharpen their skills on, paranoid is not a bad thing.
So, OpenOffice. On my hard drive. Documents also on my hard drive, behind a NAT firewall in a private folder on a non-Microsoft run box.
I am also agreeing with everyone else on this article, try open office! You can't really compare an online service to desktop software. I've used all of the services you mentioned in the article (including word 2007, 2003, 2001, and 97) and I can safely say that I can tell no difference between open office and every MS word except 2007 (in fact, I like open office better than 2007) office 2007 is using the ribbon interface, totally different from Open office, though I don't really care for it (vista might be part of the problem). Pretty much what Microsoft has done with all of it's software (down to windows 1.01) is put lipstick on a pig. The first 4 Windows (1.01, 2, 2.1, and 3) were nothing more than DOS shells! I have been using Ubuntu Linux 8.10 for a little over a week now, and windows since my first 486. I liked a few windows editions (95, 98, and xp) but vista is a big mistake, the laptop I'm using now used to be vista until it got all screwed up with a deadly virus, and now it's ubuntu. Enough microsoft-bashing for now though
as a chorus rains down from the heavens singing: "you forgot open office!"
everyone in my family uses open office save for my brother who doesn't want to feel like he wasted money getting Microsoft word. i do an online school and the files that i need to send need to be in word document format (.doc) or rich text format (rtf.) open office has both of those and any problems with mistranslation has been from human error.
so yeah open office rocks and once again you forgot to mention it.
Just to add to the Open Office discussion. I had a big problem at work exporting mailing lists from an SQL database in to Excel. It seems that MS doesn't like the UTF8 character encoding, and so all French accents get converted in to garbage code. This was a serious problem in the work place.
I downloaded Open Office, and sure enough, it had no problem at all with the UTF8 encoding. I could even export back out to the MS format later on. And using the Open Office BASE program was a lot easier for certain data sorting and manipulation than with a spreadsheet. And since not all MS Office packages come with ACCESS (like my copy at work), I again found that Open Office was a superior tool. Oh ya, and it also comes with a PDF writer. Free.
As far as I'm concerned, Open Office isn't just AS GOOd as MS Office, but BETTER. And not just for my kids doing their homework, but for me at work. And not just because it is free. Seriously, it was a pleasure freeing myself from one more dysfunctional Microsoft chain.
Thanks to you guys, I'm downloading OpenOffice right now.
I'm starting to get sick of Office 03'.
(+1 to the chorus of openoffice)