The Best Way To Do Work Online

A Web-based office suite that bests Google and Microsoft. screen capture. Click image to expand.
Zoho office applications suite

On March 6, InformationWeek reported that the FAA is contemplating dumping Microsoft Office in favor of the browser-based Google Apps suite. My first thought: I hope none of those sentinels of the nation’s skies has to get work done on an airplane. Like all Web-hosted services, Google Apps requires a persistent Internet connection, preferably a reasonably speedy one.

The FAA’s 45,000 staffers better not plan on putting together any presentations, either—Google Apps has no PowerPoint equivalent. Nor does Apps offer a database (such as Access) or a desktop-publishing program (like Publisher). Even the programs it does have are missing functionality that’s been standard in traditional desktop suites for a couple of decades. Google Docs can’t handle files with more than a half-megabyte of text; Google Spreadsheets doesn’t produce charts.

For now, the Apps suite, which is available in both a free version and (soon) a $50 Premier Edition, is nothing more than an intriguing first draft. Google being Google, it’s possible that Apps will get beefed up until it’s truly capable of threatening Microsoft’s office-productivity hegemony. But if the FAA (or anyone else) needs a full-fledged online office suite right this very minute, Google isn’t the way to go—Zoho is.

Zoho is, like Google Apps, a Web-based productivity suite. The biggest difference between them will be obvious the first time you visit the Zoho home page. Unlike Apps and most other would-be Office killers, the Zoho suite has all of the applications you expect: a word processor, a spreadsheet program, a presentation package, e-mail, and a calendar. There are also Zoho modules for databases and managing projects. And there are even tools with no counterpart in Microsoft Office, such as one for building wikis.

In many ways, Zoho is comfortable territory. Most of its applications sport interfaces that bear more than a passing resemblance to Office. They also support Microsoft file formats. (The old, familiar interface and formats, that is—not the radically different ones introduced with Office 2007.)

While they don’t replicate every function of their Microsoftian counterparts, Zoho’s programs are highly evolved by online standards. Zoho Writer, for instance, handles basic graphics and lists with aplomb, incorporates tools for Web-page design and blogging, and offers multiple levels of undo. Like many of the best Web applications, it makes collaboration painless, letting you share documents selectively or post them on the Web with a few clicks. And while the Zoho applications are inaccessible when you’re offline, plug-ins for Word and Excel let you save and open documents from your online Zoho file repository. That means it’s a snap to use Zoho when you’ve got a Net connection and Office when you don’t.

Zoho is the product of a little-known company based in Pleasanton, Calif.,  named AdventNet. Though AdventNet isn’t a large corporation, it still manages to improve, expand, and update Zoho at a furious pace. At the DEMO product-launchpad convention in February, the company previewed Zoho Notebook. While Notebook is a rough equivalent of Microsoft’s OneNote note-taking program, it easily transcends its inspiration. The application, which is due for public release later this month, lets you create binderlike online documents that meld text, graphics, audio, and video, and it cleverly embeds functionality from other Zoho programs, such as its word processor and spreadsheet. It’s a major step forward for cross-application integration, which was the whole idea behind office suites in the first place. And I can see everyone from businesspeople documenting their brainstorms to kids creating school reports finding it mighty handy.

So, how much will all this goodness cost you? Like Google Apps, AdventNet offers free versions of its various services but hopes to tempt volume buyers with subscription plans that sharply undercut Microsoft. A 25-user, one-year subscription to Zoho Virtual Office, the core suite, goes for $295—100 bucks less than one copy of Office 2007 Standard.

Even at that price, I wouldn’t advise many individuals, companies, or massive federal agencies to ditch Office altogether for Zoho. The latter’s services are still works in progress, rightly labeled as beta, and suffer from such common Web maladies as occasionally sluggish performance and inconvenient downtimes. And while AdventNet has a long history as Web companies go—it was founded back in 1996—I keep local backups of my vital documents just in case Zoho unexpectedly ceases to exist. In that respect, score one for Google Apps, whose parent company is unquestionably around for the long haul.

My bottom line: While Microsoft’s wares won’t depart my hard drive anytime soon, I’m increasingly supplementing them with Zoho’s Office-compatible tools and online file storage. I’m also spending quality time with a variety of smart stand-alone Web services, such as 30 Boxes, an ingeniously simple calendar and to-do list that’s sort of an anti-Outlook. The Web is starting to change workaday productivity for the better, and almost none of that change is coming out of Redmond.

Of course, a well-done Microsoft entrant would still be the most logical route for Office users who want to take their work online. Such a product could arrive at any time, but right now, the company only offers a service called Office Live that confusingly has almost nothing to do with the suite whose name it shares. Thankfully, Zoho is more than good enough until the real thing comes along.