Web 2.0 Translates to Free Hosted Office Apps

By Vangie Beal
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While Web 2.0 has had its day of being just marketing jargon, small businesses are finally starting to see something concrete come packaged under the popular catch-phrase.

The idea of free Web-based office applications is not a new one — actually we've been seeing bits and pieces of this concept for quite some time. Companies such as Google and ThinkFree are finally putting the puzzle pieces together for consumers and businesses, offering a new way to manage, store, share and collaborate online.

In offices across the country, co-workers spend time e-mailing documents back and forth, placing a call to ensure a document was received and discussing edits. In these instances office productivity can increase with a Web-based office suite system that allows workers to edit and collaborate on office documents in real-time.

Under the larger umbrella Software as a Service (SaaS), these Web-based applications let you avoid purchasing and installing any software (or new hardware for that matter). An Internet connection and Web browser is all you need to access this growing collection of online applications for word processing, spreadsheet tasks, Webmail, calendars and even Web site design services.

The Benefits Of Using Web-Based Office Apps
Some applications are stand-alone service such as a single word processing or Web site design application. Other application service providers (ASPs), such as NetSuite may offer an entire suite of Web office apps with integration among their own services.

For small businesses, Web-based office applications can offer several benefits over standard software packages. Because the application and documents are often hosted remotely, you don't need to invest in additional hardware for storage and servers, or human resources to install, patch, maintain and update software. You also can't overlook the fact that some of these Web-based office applications are free (or a lot cheaper than licensed software packages), which is an obvious benefit to a company working with a small business budget.

For the most part, Web-based office applications keep the same look and feel as traditional software packages, and incorporate the basic functions to create, import and edit documents. Web-based office apps tend to keep it on the simple side. Online spreadsheets will generally offer basic to intermediate formula functions, and word processors may contain common formatting and layout options, but provide fewer fonts. You may also find a spell checker but not a thesaurus and other features. For some users this in itself is an advantage if you find current software packages a bit of an over-kill for basic word processing needs.

The big draw is that many Web 2.0 office applications offer the ability to share, edit, and collaborate with co-workers and clients in real time via the Internet. Because the applications are Web-based, collaboration is completely independent of the user's computer software and operating system. If you had data in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that you wanted to share with a client, the client would need to have software that could open an Excel spreadsheet. Using Google's Web-based spreadsheet for example, means your client can view the information through their Web browser and not need to have specific software installed on their computer - just an account with Google Spreadsheets and an invitation from you to view and edit the file.

Popular, Web Office Applications
You've no doubt heard a lot recently about Google's hosted applications, which has lead to speculation that complete Web-office suite from Google in on the horizon. Right now, Google offers, for free,Calendar, Gmail (Webmail with Google Talk integration), Page Creator, Spreadsheets (read Google Sprerads it On). Google's offerings currently don't make up a suite, but the mix of available applications do lend weight to making a free Web-based Google Office a reality in the near future.

Writely is one of several Web-based word processing services that use Ajax to enable users to create, store share and edit documents online. In March, Google acquired Writely and opened it up to beta testing last month. The online word processor allows you to create new documents or open Microsoft Word documents, as well as other formats such as OpenOffice, HTML or text files. Writely offers an easy-to-use WYSIWYG editor to format and spell-check documents. Like many of Google's apps, Writely let users, up to 50 at one time, according to the Web site, shrea and collaborate on word processing online.

Writely lets you create new files or open Microsoft Word documents as well as other formats such as OpenOffice, HTML or text files.
(Click for larger image.)

To make collaboration a bit easier, you can access a revision history and even roll-back to any version of the document at any time. Once you have created or edited a document, you then can download it to your computer as a Word, OpenOffice, RTF, PDF, HTML or even zip file. You can also post your Writely documents directly to blogs, such as Blogger and RSS feeds as well. Writely does not currently offer any integration with Google's other office apps like Gmail and Spreadsheets, but industry watchers believe this is only a matter of time.

What Google does offer right now as a package includes those applications available under the name Google Apps for Your Domain. This desktop application suite includes Gmail, Calendar, Talk and Page Creator. The free hosted Google Apps allow you to create free e-mail accounts using your own domain name, allowing you to continue you own branding while using e-mail and saving on an e-mail server and storage, since all the content is hosted on Google's servers. Later this year Google is expected to offer a premium version of Google Apps for the enterprise which will carry a fee and be fully supported.

Other companies offering Web-based office services include ThinkFree and Silver Office Inc. Silveroffice's service, called gOffice is Web-based office suite. While it isn't free, they charge only a nominal 99 cent per month fee, which includes storage space for up to 10,000 documents. gOffice also has a large selection of free text, which you can use document templates, as well as several stationery templates to use as backgrounds. You can also choose to upload your own corporate letterhead. gOffice best-suited for writing letters, presentations, memos and simple reports. Documents created in gOffice can also be exported in PDF format.

ThinkFree offers a more complete Web-based office suite that allows you to access, create and edit Microsoft Office files (including Word, Excel or PowerPoint). ThinkFree's free online suite consists of Office Write for word processing, Office Calc for spreadsheets and a presentation application called ThinkFree Office Show.

Thinkfree to Flickr
ThinkFree offers integration with Web 2.0 services such as Flickr.
(Click for larger image.)

ThinkFree also offers mash-ups that provide integration with other Web 2.0 services such as Flickr and del.icio.us. In terms of collaboration, ThinkFree allows you to share your folders where others can post files for you to review, and the application gives you the control to set read-only or read-and-edit privilege access for each person. While the free online office suite offers 1 GB of Web storage, you can upgrade the storage, for a fee.

Thinkfree to blogs
ThinkFree let you to publish to your Blog, which others can view without having any installed software or even being a ThinkFree Online member.

ThinkFree has also announced its plans to later this year offer a premium subscription service that will add administrative tools and more functionality.

The Drawbacks
Free Web-based office applications are appealing. However, there are issues that small businesses need to consider. Even the current state of the market, you're not going to want to give up your Microsoft Office software just yet. Web 2.0 office applications are still growing and the vast majority are still being offered as beta tests to users. For power-users, it is also important to remember that a free online word processing application just won't have the same level of functionality and options that most office software packages, like Microsoft Office, has.

Tech support for Web 2.0 applications is another area of concern to businesses. While in their varying stages of beta tests, today's Web office applications are still fully functional, most providers do not offer one-on-one technical support. When you need help with the service you may end up e-mailing a request or searching forums and discussion groups for help. You may also want to consider the availability of the application itself. The fact that the application and, often times, your saved documents are hosted online means when your Internet connection drops you can't access the service or files.

Many industry watchers continue to debate just how secure your private corporate documents are when left on the servers of a company thats makes its dime of searching online content and providing advertisements. It is becoming increasingly important for businesses to set policies for Web application use. Also, make sure you read each service provider's agreement and know how your private corporate information will be used and stored online, and who can access it.

The Future of Web Office Applications
While some of these issues may make you want to think twice about using free Web-based office applications, Web-based services do offer savings in terms of both human resources and money. They can assist in eliminating wasted time as employees no longer need to pass a document around from person to person for approval and editing. With no IT managed software installation and patching or license fees required, Web-based office applications do provide a financial benefit to your bottomline.

Microsoft Word wasn't created in a day, and neither are the new Web-based alternatives to Office. While Microsoft Word and Excel certainly won't be added to any pile of obsolete software any time soon, as long as Web office applications continue to add support for these popular office software products, the emphasis on cost-saving collaboration is enough you at least consider adding these services into their collection of office tools.

Based in Nova Scotia, Canada, Vangie Beal has been writing about computers, games and technology since the early 90s. She's also the managing editor of Webopedia.

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This article was originally published on September 14, 2006
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