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

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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