5 Web Office Considerations: Beyond the Buzz

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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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