Online Office Applications: Zoho vs. Google vs. Microsoft Office Live

Online office applications have both their pros and cons. One of the most obvious of advantages is the potential cost savings in not having to deploy and maintain the software on a per-machine basis. Location-independent access is another. If you have an Internet connection, you have your data. Additionally, the collaborative nature of these hosted applications leads to a more efficient way to share and work on projects with colleagues in veritable real-time, rather than having to do the whole open-send-edit-resend-as-e-mail attachment thing.

There are drawbacks: A lack of control in the cloud versus the control a VAR would have with the software residing on premise; recurring monthly fees associated with the business-class online suites; and a reliance on Internet connectivity and bandwidth for performance to get work done.

Another issue arose while testing online apps. If your browser crashes, there is very little assurance that your work will be saved (even though one of the suites we tested did have Auto Save.)

We took a look at three online productivity suites and their free, basic versions. Here's how they fared:

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Zoho Office Suite:

Developed by AdventNet, Zoho can integrate with Google and Yahoo! Accounts for authentication and for synching up contacts.

The personal edition components include Writer for word processing, Sheet for spreadsheets, a presentation editor, and a Chat and Wiki component.

Any user familiar with Microsoft Word's pre-ribbon interface should have little problem working with the toolbars and menus in Zoho Writer. The standard buttons and commands of Word are included in Writer. Other features include the ability to publish a document to make it instantly available online. You can also copy a system-created scriptlet that can be added to a Web site and blog to give visitors access to the document. Writer also supports digital signatures.

Zoho Writer cleanly imported a document created in Office 2007. A .docx file, however, lost a bit of its formatting upon import. The spell check feature was robust, but those accustomed to the on-the-fly auto check of Word should be made aware that spellcheck is initiated manually in Writer. Writer can export to a number of file formats, including OpenOffice and PDF.

Zoho sheet was able to open a highly formatted capital budget template created in Excel. Some of the formatting was a bit off -- some of the cell contents were misaligned, for example. As in Excel, Sheet supports chart and pivot table creation.

Sheet has a VBA editor. The editor refused to fully load at first, but it was nothing that Page Refresh could not handle (we tested in Internet Explorer 7). This was not too much of a problem, but a definite reminder that we were working in an online application. Sheet can export as Excel, OpenOffice, OpenDocument, Gnumeric, PDF and other file formats. There is currently no support for .xlsx format.

Zoho's presentation editor also does not support .pptx.

This application has a bit of a primitive quality to it. There was no ability to incorporate even basic slide-animated transitions, and there was no ready way to rehearse a slide show. It is, however, a good basic presentation creator.

With Zoho Office, you can create your own public wiki and there is a Notes component. One issue we had with the suite was there was no way to close a file without saving. There is a history function that allows a reversion back to the file before a change was applied. It even showed the differences between the most recent and older versions of the file.

There seemed to be no prebuilt templates with the programs.

Zoho has other versions available for a fee. Zoho Business includes all of these applications in addition to user, group and domain management capability. The Business version also includes Instant Messaging, Contact Manager, Tasks and Calendar Manager, and document storage. Zoho Business is free for the first 10 users and then costs $50.00 per user, per year. Zoho has other business online services: CRM, Projects and Zoho Creator (for Developers) are all per-month, fee-based services.

Google Docs:

Documents is the no-frills name of the word-processing suite in Google Docs. Again, the interface is comparable to Word, although more Spartan. Documents has handy offline capability so data can be accessed in absence of an Internet connection. Another nice feature is in the event of an inadvertent log-off, a prompt appears if the document is not saved before log-off happens.

Files can be saved as Word, PDF, OpenOffice, HTML, RTF or text. Documents are sharable with others as collaborators or as read-only viewers. You can publish the file as a Web page or send as an attachment from Writer.

Tables are created easily, although with little variation in formatting options. There aren't many fonts to choose from either, but Document has the commonly used ones. Spellcheck also does not happen automatically; it has to be clicked by the user.

Spreadsheet in Google Docs was impressive. The same complex capital budget spreadsheet opened with formatting more intact than was the case with Zoho. Opening up a new spreadsheet initiated the AutoSave feature. Objects like charts and comments can be added, but we did not find a way to create a pivot chart. Other interesting gadgets can be added like interactive tables, animated charts and maps. Like Zoho, there is no support yet for .xlsx files.

Presentation came with an assortment of background templates. There was no way, however, to view a completed slide show. Again, as in Zoho, there is no support for .pptx and no slide animation. A .ppt file with a lot of embedded images and heavily formatted background opened up perfectly. Google Docs give users the ability to make interactive forms complete with check boxes, multiple choice select buttons and text fields.

Google Apps is the business-level offering of Google Docs.

Microsoft Office Live Workspace:

Not a real full-blown productivity suite, Office Live Workspace is more aligned with Microsoft's inclination to fuse hosted services with an on-site infrastructure. Live Workspaces is a way to share documents collaboratively online. Documents are editable only by installed Office programs.

Live Workspaces allows for up to 500MB of storage and uploaded file size limitations are set at 25MB. Workspace templates are provided, if you open up, for example, a "Meeting Workspace," preloaded files such as Meeting Notes, Meeting Minutes and List of Attendees are included.

It's not a real fair comparison to pit Zoho and Google Docs against Microsoft Live Workspace. Office is used to edit documents in Live Workspace and Google Docs and Zoho, particularly with their free online Office services, are not as feature-rich as Office. However, Google Docs certainly holds its own as a good full-blown productivity suite. Zoho has a lot of potential and will certainly serve the purpose, but Google Docs has the edge in features.