Test Center review: Office killers pack some heat

Cloud-based Google Docs and Zoho, as well as desktop-bound IBM Lotus Symphony and OpenOffice.org, put Microsoft's productivity suite on notice

There are few pieces of software that users touch more often than office productivity suites. The market monster is, of course, Microsoft Office, with the lion's share of all licenses for office productivity tools. But two trends -- open source and cloud computing -- are offering a new generation of Office alternatives that businesses may want to consider.

In many ways, the sheer pervasiveness of Microsoft Office means that it defines the category in terms of the basic functions that are required and the way they're presented. If you want or need to have a different sort of office productivity solution sitting on your desk, then you're going to look at options defined in large part by the ways in which they differ from Microsoft Office.

[ Before you switch from Microsoft Office to one of these alternatives, you should weigh the costs of training, file compatibility, and support. See the article "Can you really live without Microsoft Office?" and the slideshow "Office killers" ]

Both IBM Lotus Symphony and Google Docs take a basic view of the office suite, with word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications front and center. To a certain extent, each can succeed with this approach because each has a set of communication, collaboration, and database applications that exist apart from the personal productivity basics.

OpenOffice and Zoho are much more all-inclusive products, with different emphases based on their different primary audiences. OpenOffice adds a database manager, a drawing tool, and an equation editor to the basic tools to create a suite well matched to academic and research-oriented desktops. Zoho has the largest package of functions, with a planner, a notebook, a wiki, dedicated chat, and an e-mail client added to the personal productivity side, and eight applications, from database to CRM, available in a business applications section.

Google Docs
When you sign up for Google Docs, you're told that you'll be getting a beta product (albeit one that's being “tested” by an awful lot of people). I applaud Google for its honesty, because Google Docs has the feel of a beta product. It's not that the Web-based applications are unstable; it's more that they seem intentionally limited in scope to ensure their stability. The word processor, for example, has no support for footnotes, a bibliography, or mail merge. The list of available fonts is also kept quite small (in what may, for many users, be an act of compassion).

The word processor (screen image) betrays its Web roots with an offer to allow you to edit the HTML code for the document and create CSS that apply to your work. Aside from that, the basics of today's word processing are there: You can insert tables and graphical elements, count words, correct spelling, and perform essential formatting (so long as you don't go crazy with fonts).

Collaboration is handled through in-line comment balloons, bookmarks within documents, and the ability to share a given document among any number of users with Google accounts. The best news here is that collaborators don't have to share the same browser or even the same computing platform; a far-flung group consisting of Linux, Macintosh, and Windows users can all work together to create a finished document.

Google's spreadsheet is simultaneously the most frustrating and most powerful of the functions available in the suite. It's frustrating because it works so completely differently than a product like Excel. Take, for example, the process for adding a formula to a cell. Rather than editing it within the cell or in a formula bar over the spreadsheet pane, you click on a tab that takes you away from the editing window to a formula window. Once there, you can do many things, but in order to format the results, you have to click back to the edit tab.

The spreadsheet (screen image) is powerful because you can add plug-in functions to any spreadsheet. These plug-ins will let you display data in a number of creative ways, from power gauges to timelines to word clouds. Between the plug-ins and connections between the spreadsheet and various Google Web publishing tools, the Google spreadsheet may be the most powerful, easy-to-use tool for getting complex data published on the Web. On the collaboration side, there are revision-tracking tools that let everyone know who touched the spreadsheet and how, and spreadsheets can be exported to a number of different formats.

So is Google Docs ready to take over from Microsoft Office? Not in the current beta release. The fact is that there are just too many functions used in day-to-day office or academic work that aren't supported or are supported in a difficult-to-use fashion. Google Docs is great for collaborating across the Web, especially if the users are running a variety of different operating systems. For mainstream work, though, we'll have to look to other answers.

IBM Lotus Symphony
While IBM Lotus Symphony doesn't work within your regular browser, it would be wrong to say that it's not browser-based – the suite simply travels within its own browser. Once you get started, the suite looks familiar, especially if you've ever spent any time with Lotus Notes. Within the suite, you'll find the same sort of powerful functionality and a complete feature set that was always present within the Symphony suite, along with a user interface that is just different enough from Microsoft Office to make for some interesting hunting experiences as you're getting started.

It's possible that Symphony is the perfect word processor (screen image) for you if you need to create visually complex documents on a regular basis. If you need to frequently repeat the creation of those complex documents, the case gets even stronger. Symphony allows finer command, within a more obvious control set, of document elements than any word processor I've seen. This isn't new – I remember that my wife, when working for an engineering firm a decade ago, chose Symphony (or its predecessor) as the document preparation product for this very reason. Academic and research users will find solid footnote and cross-referencing tools, though the bibliography-creation tools aren't at the same level as the superb tools in Word 2007. If your needs tend more to technical documentation than the academic paper, then the word processor here could be right up your alley.

Symphony's spreadsheet (screen image) is based on the venerable Lotus 1-2-3. As such, it is a solid enterprise-class spreadsheet that operates as we expect spreadsheets to operate. I was able to open and save spreadsheets in various formats, and to import a number of Excel spreadsheets. While the spreadsheet doesn't have quite the number of formatting options available to the word processor, it is still possible to create complex spreadsheets with high levels of scripting and detailed formatting in the program. For users who need essential spreadsheet functions and don't depend on enterprise applications built on Excel macros, the Symphony spreadsheet could be an acceptable option.

The presentation section of Symphony is also quite capable, though it doesn't have the same rich set of multimedia functions that come with PowerPoint. Neither does it have a wide range of ready-made background and layout templates to jump-start your creativity. If you don't need those – for example, if you want to create solid, basic presentations for business or academic purposes – then the presentation package in Symphony should take care of you nicely.

Can Symphony do all you need in a personal productivity package? If you require solid functionality in word processing, spreadsheet manipulation, and presentation creation for a Windows platform, and co-authoring those files isn't critical, then yes. Symphony's feature set isn't as rich as Office's, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Straightforward, rich functionality for an individual or small group – that's nothing to sneeze at.

OpenOffice.org is the granddaddy of Office alternatives. A product for nearly 20 years, the current version is available in 21 different languages on platforms that include Windows, Linux (RPM and Debian), Solaris (SPARC and x86), and Mac OS X (Intel and PowerPC). It's widely available, well supported (through active user and developer communities), and stable. The question remains: Is it good enough to be your only personal productivity suite?

The word processor (screen image) has a look that will seem familiar to folks who have been using Word for a number of years. When you dig into the interface, you find that OpenOffice.org includes many features that are missing from other products in this comparison, such as mail merge and style galleries for business users, as well as bibliography, footnote, and cross-reference functions for academic and research users. There are also multimedia capabilities for Web 2.0 folks (extending to video and audio), along with HTML-editing features when you want to take your documents directly online.

In some areas, OpenOffice.org has user interface features that make common capabilities easier to employ than they are in competing programs. Inserting a table, for example, brings out a floating toolbar for sizing and formatting the table without having to resort to multiple trips to a menu structure. That's nice, as is the word processor's native PDF output ability. The only features that seem significantly lacking are those for collaborating with multiple authors; you can insert a note, but more sizable collaboration capability would be welcome.

OpenOffice.org's spreadsheet (screen image) is a capable numeric- and data-analysis tool, with an interface that will look more familiar to longtime Excel users than the revamped ribbon scheme of Office 2007 did. On the issue of macros, OpenOffice.org's spreadsheet and word processor both support them, but they're not the same macros that run in Office. They're similar, being based on Basic, but there are differences between Office's VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) and OpenOffice.org's Basic API. This is yet another case in which each of the products is a capable tool, and each will open documents created by the other (assuming, of course, that you save the files in the proper format), but you shouldn't assume that you can blithely toss complex files back and forth between the suites with no intervention required.

The presentation creator that comes with OpenOffice.org is fully featured, with superb capabilities for sorting and organizing slides, and a very nice wizard that can get you started if you're unsure about how to begin your presentation. As with the word processor, there are multimedia capabilities, so you can easily build a business presentation around the latest video you found on YouTube.

The verdict, then, is that OpenOffice.org is entirely capable of being the primary, or only, personal productivity suite used by an organization. There are two large caveats in this statement. First, the collaboration capabilities of OpenOffice.org are not on a par with those found in either Microsoft Office or Google Docs. It's not that two or more individuals can't collaborate on a document in OpenOffice.org; it's just that they'll have to bring in additional products or work harder to do it. Second, if you want to use business intelligence or other enterprise applications that depend on Excel macros, you can't run them directly in OpenOffice.org. With custom programming, you'll be able to do a great deal, but once again, you're looking at additional investment to make things work.

Zoho is, like Google Docs, a hosted, Web-based personal productivity suite. Like Google Docs, its ties to the Internet have been loosened by Google Gears. Unlike the more strictly limited Google Docs, though, Zoho has moved in the direction of a complete enterprise suite of applications, with CRM, human resources management, and other enterprise apps joining the personal productivity applications provided. Zoho has, by far, the broadest range of applications available among the four productivity suites examined in this article.

Zoho Writer (screen image) is an HTML-centric word processor that has interesting strengths coupled with unfortunate omissions. For business users, it is built for collaboration, with notes and history tied to Zoho's inherent capacity for sharing documents among work groups. It lacks mail merge, and the set of available fonts is limited, though not so constrained as that in Google Docs. Academic and research-oriented users will welcome the footnote and table of contents tools, along with the LaTex equation editor, but will be on their own for a bibliography.

As with Google Docs, users can build CSS for document formatting and tweak HTML code by toggling between text and code views. When it comes time to move your document to another system, Zoho Writer will export to a number of formats, including DOCX, Word, PDF, and LaTex.

Zoho's spreadsheet application, Sheet (screen image), has all the basic functions you need, including the ability to build and run VBA macros. When I imported a spreadsheet created in Excel, I found that basic formatting and equations moved across just fine, but cell size and text overlapping did not, making for a few minutes of cleanup. The interface for Sheet is similar to that of Writer, and it has a feel that I'll call slightly retro, but it will do pretty much anything you'd want in the average spreadsheet package – including making it easy for you to embed charts, graphics, and data ranges in Web pages. Sheet doesn't hook into the amazing range of widgets and Web publishing services you'll find in Google Docs, but it will give you a significant leg up on publishing your data to the Web.

The presentation creator within Zoho, Zoho Show, is a solid performer that makes it especially easy to include Web elements in a presentation, or to publish a presentation to the Web. Some of the integration is seen in small ways (like an option to pull images from Flickr to embed in a slide), while others are more obvious (such as the ability to directly edit HTML code for the slide). Zoho Show doesn't allow you to directly embed video and audio in a slide, though you could certainly link to any sort of multimedia content. In general, Show could be used to create slides for most business or academic purposes, and it's as old-school comfortable as the other applications in the Zoho suite.

Could Zoho be the primary personal productivity software for an enterprise? Possibly. If the organization we're talking about is a smallish, widely distributed group that needs to share information and collaborate, but doesn't want the expense of central collaboration services servers, then Zoho is perfect. It is good enough for many companies and can't be beat on its implementation of SaaS (software as a service) principles for the SMB market.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Word processing (20.0%)
Ease of use (15.0%)
Spreadsheets (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Presentation graphics (20.0%)
Interoperability (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Zoho Writer, Sheet, Show 8.0 7.0 8.0 9.0 7.0 8.0 7.8
Google Docs 6.0 7.0 7.0 7.0 5.0 7.0 6.4
IBM Lotus Symphony 1.0 8.0 7.0 8.0 7.0 8.0 8.0 7.8
OpenOffice.org 2.4.1 8.0 8.0 6.0 8.0 6.0 8.0 7.2
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