Can Web-based applications outwit, outplay, outlast the desktop?

We sentenced InfoWorld Senior Contributing Editor Oliver Rist to 7 days of using only Web-based productivity applications. Here's how he survived

Why do I always say yes to these things? “Live a week in a browser,” my editor says. “It’ll be fun,” he says. No access to my Microsoft Office apps, just the Web 2.0 equivalents that seem to be popping up like gaffes at a Bush press conference.

The point of this little exercise was to see whether anyone would seriously contemplate replacing desktop with Web-based productivity apps. And if not, how close are we? After all, whenever Google waves its hands in this direction, the pundits swoon. Not to mention that enterprises would save gazillions in licensing and desktop maintenance.

[Talkback: Can Web-based apps outwit, outplay, outlast the desktop?]

As you can tell, I let myself get suckered into this foretaste of the future. And I did learn something: A week can be an awfully long time.

Sunday: Prep work

The list of possible Web “desktop” applications is amazingly long. Originally, I figured on Google’s Writely, Google Spreadsheets, and a few choices of e-mail. But I was wrong. In all, I ferreted out 22 Web applications, including no fewer than three full productivity suites and numerous stand-alone applications.

After some research, I decided my week should be spent covering the five productivity cornerstones of Oliver’s life: e-mail and scheduling, word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and collaboration. But by no means is that all that’s available in Web-bound applications. I’ll be looking at additional applications on the SMB IT blog in the future, including accounting, CRM, project management, and more.

And before the flame mails start, let me be clear that my selection of apps for my WINO (Week of INternet Office) project are … personal. Subjective. Buttery soft. Which apps appealed to my particular style of working is partially based on features and partially on ease of use in the user interface -- I’m a creature of Office, and I don’t feel like spending the week staring at a Help menu. Your preferences may vary.

I decided to set up an entirely new machine and work area for WINO, too, just to maintain boundaries. From my office I moved down to the dining room, stuck an office chair in there, and ran an Ethernet cable, too -- no complaints about unreliable Wi-Fi. Instead of the high-powered Dell M90 that I had configured with Vista RC1 and Office 2007 Beta 2, I moved to the Gateway M-255E machine that I had cleaned up in anticipation of sending it back to its spotted makers.

I made sure it had the Java Runtime Environment installed, as well as Internet Explorer 6 and Firefox 1.5. No trace of Redmond productivity software aside from what normally ships with Windows XP. Tack on a 19-inch Gateway display and a Microsoft Wireless mouse and keyboard set and we’re almost done. Finally, I moved all the docs I thought I’d need for this week to my Xdrive online hard drive account, just to maintain the ambiance.

The finishing touches were preventative medicine: a bottle of Johnny Walker Black on the left and a bottle of Advil on the right.

Monday: E-mail and scheduling

Without scheduling I don’t know when my articles, commercial writing projects, sales meetings, and doctors’ appointments are. Without e-mail, my editors, clients, and co-workers can’t send me complaints, demands, or “you’re late with the WINO piece” e-mails like the one I just got.

Naturally, I’m basing my e-mail expectations on Microsoft Outlook. If Outlook has it, I want it in my Web client. Digging around allowed me to find my top picks for WINO Web mail: MSN’s Hotmail or Windows Live Mail Desktop Beta; Google Gmail and Google Calendar; Yahoo Mail; and Zoho’s Virtual Office e-mail client. A special note about two I left out: Scalix and Zimbra. Both of these are highly capable browser-based e-mail clients, but they are primarily designed to run with their own e-mail servers.

I use Hotmail regularly because I was assigned a Hotmail account when I became MSN’s Technology Filter blogger. I’ve used Google’s e-mail and calendaring experimentally mainly because all the programming nerds in the office seem to love it. And I’ve used Yahoo’s mail client for years as a personal alternative. Unfortunately, I missed being able to test out Yahoo’s just-released new Mail beta client because it came out only yesterday and this article is due today. Look for a possible revamped opinion on the SMB IT blog, possibly by the time this hits print.

In the end, I was surprised to find Yahoo my pick. All the others had excellent points, but Yahoo had one thing I couldn’t find anywhere else: some ability to sync with Outlook. I knew I couldn’t upload my e-mail store (nobody’s going to give 6GB of e-mail storage for free), and Yahoo doesn’t offer that capability in any case. But it does allow you to sync your calendar, contacts, and notes or tasks. It also allowed me to propagate that info back to my mobile device — my brand-new Motorola Q.

Google’s two programs are solid; I like Google Mail’s sort and search capabilities. But the calendar is a bit flaky and not as integrated with the mail client as I’d like. Hotmail is practically the same as Yahoo, save for the syncing. Zoho was a close second because its e-mail client is part of its collaboration suite. When we get to collaboration on Friday, I’ll probably switch to this suite because it gives me tools that Yahoo doesn’t; but for single-user e-mail and scheduling, plus an easy move from your present fast-client e-mail software, Yahoo’s out there alone.

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Except, ironically, for e-mail itself. Yahoo’s present e-mail client can handle POP3 e-mail accounts besides your Yahoo address. It handled both my alternative e-mail addresses with no problem. But mail volume is still an issue as it will be for all these freebie Web clients. As a geek journalist, I get between 400 and 800 e-mails a day. That can chew through a single gig of online space pretty quickly. It means more time spent on e-mail maintenance than I ever had to do using a desktop client. It also means I can’t store as many archived e-mails as I’d like. I can survive in the Yahoo environment for WINO’s duration, but if I actually had to live there, I’d have to seriously adjust how I work.

Even so, aside from not being able to upload my existing e-mail store, Monday turned out pleasantly enough.

Tuesday: Word processing

I’m a journalist, so this is where I live. If I can’t write, I can’t eat. You’ve seen my picture, so you know I like to eat.

Again, a surprising number of entries. A few hours of looking around turns up ajaxWrite, Google’s Writely, RallyPoint, ThinkFree, Writeboard, and Zoho Writer. I probably missed a couple. Right off the bat, though, Rallypoint and Writeboard are out. The former just announced they’re closing their project, and the latter is a Windows Notepad competitor, not a Microsoft Word contender.

ajaxWrite is cool, it loads super-fast, and simply turns your Firefox window into a word processing toolbar and screen. A little austere, but most of the tools you’d expect from a Web word processor are there. Google Writely looks extremely friendly and has a Word 97-ish look and feel. Zoho Writer is similar to Writely in that respect but has one feature I didn’t find anywhere else: spell check. Hey, I’m an English major, but I’m also post-40 and the memory is going. Every safeguard helps.

Other than that, Google Writely and Zoho Writer are practically feature clones of each other -- a good list of fonts (although nothing like Word), the ability to create styles and templates, cut and paste from your desktop, import Word and OpenOffice doc formats, print previews -- all the basics. In addition, both offer integrated sharing, in which you can e-mail invitees to take a look at or modify your documents from a shared storage repository. And both offer direct blogging tools, where you can create your blog posts with these slightly richer tools, rather than more Spartan text toolkits you get from Blogger or WordPress.

Bottom line: Aside from the sharing, HTML conversion, and blogging tools, it’s like working in Word 97 or 98 — right down to the flakiness (little things, such as trying to create columns by tabbing across a page, always one or two spaces of difference between a tab point on one line and a tab point on another). In fact, tab guidelines at the top of the doc, like what Word has, is something all these tools could use. Surprising, how much you miss those.

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Importing my existing docs went great, until I had to import our small company’s business plan for some revisions. That meant nonstandard margins, different style headings, and loads of tables. Surprisingly, Zoho handled the tables just fine, but lost out on the margins and styles a bit. Tried it in Writely just for fun with a similar result.

I could have worked around that, but the real problem was when I made the modifications and saved the document back into Word format. Opening the doc again upstairs on my Word-equipped PC showed a few things that didn’t come out the way I wanted. That’s a real problem. If your clients, partners, cell mates, or whatever can’t open your Word documents and see the same thing you saw in Zoho, it may still get the message across, but it just doesn’t look professional. When that doc got zapped back to me by my partner, it was a Johnny Walker moment.

Wednesday: Spreadsheets

I hate spreadsheets. In our company, I’m the face guy, the talker, and the writer. My partner does the spreadsheets. I tried to enlist him for this piece, but he threw a stapler at my head, so I stopped asking. Instead, I pulled out my invoicing history spreadsheet -- the one I avoid like the Black Plague -- and determined to update the sucker.

I dug around and found a number of Websheet contenders, including Google Spreadsheets, iRows, JotSpot Tracker, Num Sum, and Zoho Sheet. JotSpot just isn’t my thing. It’s a spreadsheet integrated with a wiki. So first you’ve got to create a new wiki site for yourself, then there’s loads of support for calendars, file cabinets, and other stuff I didn’t associate with spreadsheets, and then the tool selection for working with a spreadsheet simply wasn’t as rich as in the other offerings. I’m not dissing it. JotSpot just seems intended for an interactive, collaborative “experience” more than ordinary spreadsheet work.

That left Google, iRows, Num Sum, and Zoho. All of these could take a paste from a desktop spreadsheet (but only using the Ctrl-V command), all can import spreadsheets from Excel (and others), but formulas are a bit different. The iRows toolbar and menu system had no support for creating formulas. And when I tried to import a spreadsheet containing them, I got a lot of “[something]VALUE#]” errors. iRows bought the farm.

That left Google, Num Sum, and Zoho. All had a similar, Office 97-style look and feel; all offered spreadsheeting capabilities that were more than capable of handling anything I wanted to do. Importing from my own library of spreadsheets was no problem, including formula support. When I timidly asked my partner for an even more advanced spreadsheet, he threw another stapler at me and then sent over an electronic form done entirely within Excel. Unfortunately, none of the three could handle that. Google and Num Sum just blinked a lot and claimed they’d loaded everything, but displayed a blank page. Zoho displayed a few dozen cells of one-letter gobbledygook and also claimed success.

Still no clear winner. Working in Num Sum, however, was a bit slow; same with Google Spreadsheets. Using Zoho, resizing a cell or moving a column was definitely closer to desktop snappy. And then I took a phone call for 20 minutes, came back to my Google console, and found that I’d been disconnected from the server. Logging back in allowed me to find the spreadsheet I’d been working on, but none of the changes I’d made before the call was there. That’s an Advil moment. Zoho wins.

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Thursday: Presentation graphics

I’m not a great salesman, but I am a desperate entrepreneur, and that’s the mother of all sales motivators. Presentations are near and dear to my livelihood. Fortunately for me, the choices were simple. For one, I found only two real contenders: S5 and Zoho. And S5 died the second I opened up the tutorial and saw that “based on XHTML standards” meant actually coding the presentation that way. Sorry, but I’m the face guy for a reason.

Zoho Show, on the other hand, was one of the more impressive online app representations I saw during WINO. It’s got a slightly similar look to PowerPoint, and it behaves similarly, too. Importing a presentation is easy, and it even took a basic one I whipped together in OpenOffice. Animations tend to get lost, however, but that’s an erratic error at best.

Things got a little less impressive when I began creating slides, however. A quick flowchart slide, for example, allowed easy positioning and sizing of the flowchart boxes, but it’s a hit-or-miss deal to attach lines between them. None of that smart auto-grabbing stuff that PowerPoint’s drawing tools have. Adding text is a two-step process, as well, instead of the simple click-and-type procedure in PowerPoint.

But a surprising number of other features are there: master backgrounds, previews, basic photo sizing, fancy font tools. You don’t get all the advanced drawing, transition effects, and multimedia tools you get with PowerPoint (especially PowerPoint 2007), but similar to most of the other tools here, it’s comparable with PowerPoint 98 or PowerPoint 2000. There’s even a new feature called Presentation in Presentation, where you can create Presentation A then hyperlink to it in a single slide of Presentation B and B will simply run A until you move to the next slide.

And again, I bumped into Webisms, though. For example, Zoho Show has specific support for putting notes in your slide show so that you know what you’re talking about when you’re groveling for VC funding. But it couldn’t accept them as an import from PowerPoint. Just deleted the whole thing. Most annoying. Had I not had PowerPoint to fall back on, this would have been a definite Advil-with-Johnny Walker moment.

But nothing compared to my travel moment. Today required a visit to Manhattan to finish a requirements meeting. That was no trouble because the office had guest Internet access and a steady Wi-Fi connection. But afterward, I had to wait a couple of hours before my dinner date, so I headed over to Bryant Park and its free Wi-Fi connection. Man, nothing makes your blood pressure go up quicker than trying to do work on the Web while on a public Wi-Fi connection that drops you more often than a Hollywood wife.

Friday: Collaboration

I had high hopes. If there’s one thing the Web is good at on its own, it’s collaboration. Heck, Office and SharePoint have been catching up to wikis, blogs, and message boards for some time. Still, I decided to take a look at this category and try to combine it with suites of productivity tools rather than just straight teamware, blogging, or wiki providers.

Interestingly, when you go that route, you find several new tools that I missed earlier in the week. Google is still there -- mostly -- but it’s joined by gOffice, ThinkFree, and Zoho. All of these provide collaboration features, as well as word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and even desktop publishing applications.

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Unfortunately, gOffice has loads of work to do. Its desktop publishing and presentation sites are still under development. Its spreadsheet tool is far less feature-rich than Zoho’s or Google’s, and its word processing site has the features but noticeably slow performance. Finally, “collaboration” really means e-mailing your teammates your progress reports. Last bit of bad news: They want money. I mean, 99 cents per month when they’re still in a beta phase seems cheeky compared with all the free tools around.

Google has all the basics, even if they’re a bit disjointed. Your basic office apps are there -- sans any kind of presentation tool -- and you can form discussion groups about them using the Groups tool. But often, moving between apps means logging in to Google over and over, and moving data between applications can be difficult.

ThinkFree is definitely more integrated, including a single log-in and an overlying workspace that covers all its tools -- word processing, spreadsheets, and a presentation tool. Word processing can compete with Google and Zoho, although it lacks undo or spell check. Spreadsheets can handle formulas, but they choked on the electronic form sheet like everyone else. It also seemed slower than Zoho. Presentation allowed for adequate importing but didn’t have nearly the same drawing or object importing tools that Zoho has. Collaboration is fair, including a shared area to which you can invite team members, as well as discussion boards you can setup.

But Zoho blew the rest out of the water with its Virtual Office tool. It had everything ThinkFree had, plus better overall application tools, and an e-mail and calendaring client that was fully integrated with the collaboration tool -- that’s as close to Outlook and Exchange as I’ve seen on the Web. Then it also had the wiki, blogging, and other collaboration tools that make the Web the bane of SharePoint. Last, it has a number of applications that even Google isn’t offering yet, including CRM and project management. I had to go with Zoho.

I created a team area for my developers and my project. Added discussion groups on various topics that concern us (such as eating and not getting divorced), added milestones in a shared calendar, posted some documents in a shared file area, set permissions for bits of content -- in short, everything you could want out of your basic Office-and-Sharepoint intranet site. Then I ceremoniously unveiled it to the group.

My partner threw a coffee mug at me because he was out of staplers, and the programmers did that grunt-and-ignore thing they do when they’re thinking of more important things. But they’re programmers, not normal people, so what can you expect?

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Saturday: Return to MS office

It’s back to the M90 day. And time for an “I Survived WINO” toast.

Was the experience worth it? Definitely. Are the applications worth the trouble? Mostly not. Zoho is definitely the standout in the group. It’s the only one that not only offers most of the apps I need but also seems to have a clear vision of where it’s going. And it’s free. ThinkFree and gOffice are similar, but neither has the breadth of apps, features, or collaboration that Zoho does.

The rest seem to be offering these apps simply because they can. Google’s Writely and Spreadsheets are impressive examples of Web 2.0 technology, but neither can compete with a desktop app on its own. And neither takes enough advantage of the Web’s particular technologies as yet.

Plus, all these applications are hampered by their very foundations: the Web. Without a Web connection, you can’t use these applications. With a spotty Web connection (such as the one at Bryant Park), you’re dead. Locally installed applications are simply more reliable and feature-rich. No big surprise there.

Companies such as Zoho, however, will most likely change that within the next two years. No, they won’t offer everything that Office does on the Web. But they’ll offer enough to make many smaller businesses turn their heads -- especially at an eventual price point of about $10 per user, per month. Give Zoho a rock-solid Web connection -- or install the local server version it’s coming out with soon -- and a “shipping” version, and you’ve got a viable competitor to Office. Maybe even on an enterprise scale.

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