Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Google Vs. Zoho: Can Either Replace Microsoft Office?

While Microsoft Office currently rules as the king of the office suites, there are at least two online contenders for the crown. Could Google or Zoho truly compete with Office? We try them both out.

The gold standard for office productivity has become Microsoft Office -- a suite of applications used by most of us in our day-to-day business and personal activities. While there have been a number of commercial (Corel WordPerfect Office) and free ( alternatives available, it's the new online applications that have been causing the most talk -- and, possibly, offering the most promise.

Until recently, the idea of online applications replacing locally-installed software was, to say the least, impractical. In fact, before a majority of computer users were on broadband connections, it would have been completely useless: if you're only online a few hours a day you can't confine your word processing and spreadsheet activity to those hours.

That has changed in the last few years. Most of us are online most of the time -- certainly, we have continuous access to the Internet at work and at home. As a result, using an online word processor or calendar app sounds a lot less ridiculous than it did before. And there are some things current software applications do rather badly (such as sharing files for collaborative work) that online apps are a lot better at.

The idea of committing to a Web connection for your basic tasks is still a tricky one, though. While the Internet may be ubiquitous in homes and offices, getting online from your commuter train or while you wait for your kid to finish dance class is problematic at best. In addition, glitches in broadband service, especially in remote areas that depend on satellite service, are common enough that the likelihood of even temporary loss of access to a word processor or spreadsheet can make many of us a bit nervous. But if you're willing to take the risk, two Web services have taken the lead in offering online applications that have the potential to, one day, knock Microsoft Office off its pedestal.

But can Google and/or Zoho really challenge something as entrenched in the marketplace as Microsoft Office? In the following pages, we compare each of these online contenders to the leader of the pack by matching them up to six of Microsoft Office's applications: Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Access. (Note: There is currently no database application such as Access in Google.) How do Google and Zoho rate? Is it time to switch, or are the two online services still second-raters when compared to Microsoft's established frontrunners? Read on, and see what you think.

Introducing: Google

Google, which has joined Microsoft and Apple as a contender for "tech company most likely to take over the world," has been slowly buying up interesting online applications and integrating them into its own line of advertising-supported products. It has accumulated a wide range of applications: word processing, e-mail, photo album, simple Web site developer, blogging application, and so on.

However, while there is a great deal of value in the variety, there is little to no attempt to organize them into a cohesive whole. The nearest that Google comes to this is in its Google Docs application, which combines a word processor, spreadsheet app, and presentation package. Calendar and Gmail, apps you'd normally expect to be part of a productivity suite, are totally separate. You can use Google's home page, iGoogle, to organize some of these onto the same page, but it's not quite as efficient a method as that used by, yes, Microsoft.

Introducing: Zoho

Zoho's motto is "Work. Online" and its aim is to provide you with portable replacements for many of the programs you expect to find installed on a desktop PC. The analogy the folks at Zoho use is a desk phone vs. a mobile phone: the fact that you can take your cell phone nearly anywhere (as long as there's service) gives it possibilities a regular phone doesn't have.

Despite Zoho being new to the game, it's been adding applications and features to its online office suite with persistent regularity; for example, it recently added e-mail to its feature set. Zoho even has some applications, such as its Creator database, that many hard drive-based packages do not.

There's no question about it: Zoho is obviously serious in its bid to offer people at least some of Office's functionality without the price, and with the added bonus of being able to work anywhere that there's a Web browser and an Internet connection.

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