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Summary:

Recently, we covered the release of the Microsoft Office 2010 Web Apps Technical Preview. While it was great to get a first look at this release, it was even more interesting to pull back and read the flurry of blog postings, pundit pontifications, tweets and articles […]

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Recently, we covered the release of the Microsoft Office 2010 Web Apps Technical Preview. While it was great to get a first look at this release, it was even more interesting to pull back and read the flurry of blog postings, pundit pontifications, tweets and articles that were all over the web, ranging from those stating that this was the end of Microsoft Office, to those saying that Microsoft Office 2010 Web Apps is going to wipe Google Apps and Zoho off the map.

Most of these reviews were written by people used to trying out early release beta software. However, it is one thing for a new web office offering like Office Web Apps not to live up to its potential in a periodical’s lab environment; out in the wild, billable hours go up in smoke, deadlines get blown, and reputations get bruised if you adopt a web office app that doesn’t live up to its promises or mangles a document.

While web office suites are showing great promise, web workers need to get past the thoughts of escaping Microsoft Office once and for all. Rather, you need to ensure that the web office application suite you choose is going to be a real productivity boost and enable better collaboration with your teams and clients. It’s not a Microsoft Office thing, or a Microsoft vs. Zoho thing, or even a Google vs. Microsoft thing.

Let’s investigate some more practical concerns around web office adoption:

  1. Potential file format compatibility issues. While the impending launch of the Office Web Apps is promising superior file format compatibility, what about Google Apps, Zoho Business, and ThinkFree? While early adopters are a lot more tolerant about bugs and anomalies, average users aren’t going to be happy when they upload their nicely formatted MS Word document into a web office application and find problems with formatting or, even worse, file corruption when the document comes out the other side.
  2. Template compatibility. Many organizations use document templates to provide a consistent look and feel to their documents. This means that web office suites should be able to intake MS Office templates with little or no issues — but they can’t, currently. My testing so far has revealed inconsistent results when it comes to templates for documents like user guides and resumes. Microsoft Office and web office productivity suites are far from being aligned when it comes to template creation and management.
  3. Spreadsheet features. Microsoft Excel is a rich and robust spreadsheet application that can suit everybody from casual to advanced business users. Web office applications like Google Apps, Zoho Business, and Office Web Apps Technical Preview do have spreadsheet applications, but they include only the base-level features, not the higher-end accounting and analytical tools like Pivot Tables.
  4. File storage and security. Working for corporate and federal government agencies is not without its intricacies and rules when it comes to the file storage of project documents. The Sarbanes Oxley Act, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and Committee of Sponsoring Organizations all have standards over the storage and security of files.  This means any web workers supporting client projects governed by these standards need to be aware of how auditors treat the offsite storage of customer data (including storing data online using a web office suite).
  5. Spell checking, grammar checking and track changes. Microsoft Office’s spelling and grammar checker is a useful set of extra eyes for writers of all skill levels, and for a web office suite to completely replace Microsoft Office it would need to replicate this feature. Unfortunately, Google Apps, Zoho Writer, and Microsoft Word 2010 Web App currently only include a spell checker, not a grammar checker. Track changes are a valuable editing and collaboration tool because they leave an audit trail in Microsoft Word documents. As of yet, no web office suite has track changes functionality along the lines of MS Word.

Have you considered abandoning MS Office in favor of a web office suite?

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  1. I’m really sorry that you feel this way. It is in fact Microsoft’s own fault that their software is not interoperable with the rest. Not only that but MS’s intepreter for other formats renders them faulty too.

    In all seriousness there are factors that are far more important, such as reliability, scalability, trustiness and interoperability. The most important thing with online office-ware is what happens when you don’t have access to the Internet (ok, Gears and Thinkfree have that covered, I haven’t tested any other yet).

    As for spell checking, silly Rabbit, you’ve got that in Firefox.

    While you claim it’s not a Microsoft Office thing your post comes a bit like that.

    In the end what matters is the final result, which is more likely to be either a PDF or some kind of static (ish) document.

    1. Will said that most of the online suites have spell checking — his point was that there is no grammar checking. The other points are good ones though — especially the offline access one.

      Like it or not, most of the world uses Office, so for an online office suite to succeed it will need to compete with Office for functionality and be 100% compatible with it.

      1. Agreed. Microsoft Office isn’t going anywhere and Web Offices with all their innovation need to be friendly to the Office file formats.

        Will

      2. Maybe it makes sense to stick to collaboration software like HyperOffice which work in the traditional MS Office environment. Most workers may not even be comfortable working with the purely web suites, since they’re used to the powerful features of Word and Excel.

    2. Rebecca–

      As I stated in my previous comments, I’ve been a longtime Google Docs user and have been writing about Zoho, ThinkFree, and Google Apps for a while now.

      I am also a technical writer who sees MS Office issues on a daily basis and how template and document format issues can impact productivity.

      Like it or not, many organizations are sitting on gigs upon gigs of Office documents and to fully or partially migrate to a Web Office suite then the factors I cite in my post should come into consideration so little or no time and productivity is lost.

      Will

  2. Your premise is that web apps should mimic MS Office in features and compatibility, but I disagree completely. As noted by the previous poster, this perspective is MS-centric, and does not reflect the needs of most users.

    There is no need to maintain documents in MS formats. Indeed, alternate formats and software offer superior compatibility (usually adhering to official open standards), and MS is among the worst at interoperability – probably intentionally so. Each alternative is not only fully self-compatible (your only expectation of MS), but offer users greater support for MS formats than MS offers for common ISO standards. So work groups using these alternatives will not encounter any internal issues.

    While some users rely on advanced features of MS Office, this is a small minority, and the vast majority of users needs are fulfilled by web and other office suites. So 5% of users may “need” MS, but the other 95% would be better served by the alternatives.

    You have noted potential limitations of web office suites in comparison to a local installation of MS office, but have not made the comparison of MS Office to an alternative locally installed office suite. OpenOffice is a more comparable product, and fully satisfies all of your points. WordPerfect Office is a viable alternative too, but less interoperable.

    I agree that compatibility with prior documents saved in closed proprietary MS formats is the primary impediment to improvements in the marketplace. Yet consumers continue to needlessly perpetuate this expensive and detrimental status quo. Open format web suites are one of the best solutions to this problem.

    1. Bob–

      You bring up an interesting point about the introduction of OpenOffice.org. I used to work in a mixed OpenOffice.org/MS Office environment and we ran into some annoyances and outright issues with pagination and template styles. Some were just explained outright and some required tweaks to the template.

      I’ve been following the whole open format question for awhile now. However, I’ve yet to see anybody offer up a simple solution for an organization to migrate gigs of Office documents to an open format in a low maintenance manner? Do you know of any such solution?

  3. Format compatibility, Template conversion, yadda yadda. You have fallen into the same trap so many other reviewers of web apps fall into. Conversions and compatibility issues are a one-time event at most, and usually not at all. The web apps are not “conversion apps” and their focus is not on converting Word and Office and other formats all day. Their focus is on easily accessible, easily collaborative, and amazingly sophisticated web-based applications that can stand on their own. Documents originated and edited and printed from any of these apps work great. Feature sets differ slightly from one online app to another (Google docs, Zoho, etc) but if starting from scratch and creating docs, saving docs, exporting to pdf format, with basic common functions they do great. You’ve got to get over the conversion and compatibility issues and look at these suites for their own merits and how they can completely marginalize desktop apps.

    1. First, I’ve been a long time user of Google Apps and Zoho and agree with you that such apps have come a long way. However,organizations need to look at how their documents and templates fare with the introduction of a Web Office suite. Having seen a consulting client test Web Office suites with their Office documents and the varied end results, they had to consider where the Web Office suite was in their workflow so no time was lost in reformatting or publishing of documents.

  4. Just showed Google Documents to my mom by sharing something to her for the first time, her response: “This is so damn amazing! Wow, stunning…… (continued)”

    Just thought I should chime in. Gave me something to smile about as I work into the night

    1. Pay4Bugs–

      I wrote the original post using Google Docs (which I’ve been using since it was Writely). Google Docs is great for the average user but organizations sitting on large volumes of moderately complex Word documents should consider the points I cite in my post to be strategic in how they roll out a Web Office suite whether it be to their entire user community or the 80/20 rule Ray Stahl brings up in his previous comment.

  5. A key point to remember is that MS Office is design for the extreme users and the general user. As one the other poster mention the majority of us do not use 90% of the features of most of the MS Office apps. For most us it really comes down to what feature do I need and how much am I will to spend to get it?

    For businesses the 80-20 rule general applies in which the web apps office suites will address at least 80% of the business’s users and MS Office will be needed for the remaining 20% that require unique features very much like Visto is ration out today at most companies.

    1. Ray–

      While I didn’t come out and really say it in the post, I subscribe to the 80/20 rule and can see a day where more organizations are going to adopt such a model.

  6. I’ve noticed that over the last few years, there’s much better alternatives for almost everything MS Office does. Outlook used to be my choice for email for years until I shifted to Gmail (which blows it away). Contact Management/Calendar via Outlook is done for, I’ve moved on to things like Batchbook, Highrise, Toodledo, GCal. I used to use MS Word for notes, thoughts, and blog articles. Moved all that into Evernote and been using that ever since cause it manages information 50x better. MS Word for invoicing, Freshbooks took care of that. OneNote never gets used in favor of Evernote. Picasa manages pictures much better than Office Picture Manager. Automated web apps have killed my need for Publisher. Finance/expense tracking in excel is gone, hello Outright.com & Mint.com

    For me (not a student, not in the corporate world), the need for Office software can be virtually eliminated, and my guess is there’s millions of others like me. Companies like the ones on http://thesmallbusinessweb.com offer many solutions that are killing the typical office software.

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