Office suites in the cloud: Microsoft Office Web Apps versus Google Docs and Zoho

Microsoft's fledgling Web-based productivity apps have one key advantage over SaaS rivals: amazing fidelity to the desktop-bound Word, Excel, and PowerPoint document formats

A spreadsheet in your browser? A word processor on the Web? These days, SaaS (software as a service) is all the rage, and the success of Web-based upstarts like has sent vendors searching for ever more categories of software to bring online. If you believe Google, virtually all software will be Web-based soon -- and as if to prove it, Google now offers a complete suite of office productivity applications that run in your browser.

Google isn't the only one. A number of competitors are readying Web-based office suites of their own -- most prominently Zoho, but even Microsoft is getting in on the act. In addition to the typical features of desktop productivity suites, each offering promises greater integration with the Web, including collaboration and publishing features not available with traditional apps.

[ Looking for a way to benchmark Windows 7 versus Vista or XP? Check out OfficeBench 7, a cross-version test script that uses your existing installation of Microsoft Office to evaluate your PC's performance. | Read InfoWorld's first look at Microsoft Office 2010. ]

But how serious are they? Even with today's modern browsers, can browser-based apps truly substitute for Microsoft Office for real-world work? I decided to find out. Armed with a selection of demo documents and actual work from my own files, I put Google Docs, Zoho, and the Technical Preview version of Microsoft's Office Web Apps to the test. Predictably, the results were mostly a disappointment -- but my experience yielded unexpected surprises, as well.

Google Docs: Your desktop, online
No company is more jazzed about Web-based applications than Google, so you'd expect its suite to be the best, right? Wrong. In fact, the most amazing thing about Google Docs turned out to be just how woefully inadequate for serious work it actually is.

When you log in to Google Docs, you're greeted with a familiar, Google-style UI: spare, reserved, understated, even elegant. But while this trademark approach works wonders for Google's search products, with Google Docs it belies a paucity of features that's instantly frustrating.

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Web-based office suites at a glance

Google DocsMicrosoft Office Web AppsZoho Writer, Sheet, Show
CostFree; $50 per user per year with Google Apps Premier EditionWill be available free via Windows Live, at a cost TBD as a SharePoint-based service from Microsoft Online Services, and as part of Office 2010 volume license purchasesFree for 1GB; $3 per user per month for 5GB with Zoho Docs; other business subscriptions available
Web browsers supportedGoogle Chrome, Firefox 2+, Internet Explorer 6+, and Safari 3+ with some exceptions (more info)Firefox 3.5+, Internet Explorer 7+, and Safari 4+Firefox 2+ and Internet Explorer 6+ (more info)
  • Spare and easy to use UI
  • Presents chronological view of documents
  • Maintains version history of each document
  • Can import documents via e-mail or the Web
  • Docs are easy to embed in blogs and Web sites
  • Same ribbon bar UI we all know
  • Reproduces Word and PowerPoint files, and embedded graphs in Excel, with absolute fidelity
  • Excel Web App displays updates to multiple authors in real time
  • Printing is flawless
  • Provides a few advanced features such as mail merge, pivot tables, and charts
  • Beta VB Macro support for spreadsheets
  • Can insert HTML and CSS directly from Web pages
  • Blog posting via MetaWebLog and Blogger APIs
  • Complemented by a wide range of business apps
  • Almost completely lacking in advanced features
  • Fails to preserve all but the most rudimentary Word, Excel, and PowerPoint formatting
  • Printing is unreliable
  • Word and PowerPoint Web Apps are read-only in the Technical Preview
  • Excel Web App cannot edit files containing VBA, shapes, and other objects
  • UI is inconsistent across apps
  • Light on sophisticated features
  • Preservation of imported Office documents only slightly better than Google Docs
  • Printing is unreliable
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