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Get Out of the Office

For basic business applications, think outside the software box.
January 1, 2007
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/187642

Like all software that's been through many revisions, Microsoft Office 2007 has accumulated things--in this case, just about every full-fledged productivity application ever conceived. But do you really need them all? Or would you prefer a smaller toolset--maybe a best-of-breed collection that fits your individual workstyle?

Alternatives to Office are sprouting up on the web like mushrooms after a rain--along with new tools for a web-centric generation. You can harvest web pages as you surf with Google Notebook, build a knowledgebase for a far-flung workgroup with Zoho Wiki, spreadsheets across your iPhone with EditGridor Word documents and more with Glide Mobile.

These solutions are remarkably light and bright compared to what's on the other side of the teeter-totter. Many focus on a few often-repeated tasks, but even SaaS alternatives to major applications, like Google Docs & Spreadsheets and Zoho, can squeeze into the browser on many mobile phones and small laptops.

The glue that's bound us to Office all these years has been the need to share work with suppliers, customers and office mates. Programs like OpenOffice.org and Corel's WordPerfect Office X3solved that challenge on the desktop long ago. The web is the ultimate Rosetta Stone for online services, and considering Microsoft's new Rube Goldberg file conversion solutions, there's never been a better time to try something new.

The "big" Office workalikes, Google and Zoho, start with the basics: word processing, spread-sheets and presentations. Zoho has been far more ambitious in spinning out auxiliary applets and services that augment Zoho Writer, Sheet and Show, providing everything from data managers to web conferencing.

Zoho apps are also more fully featured and attractive than Google Docs, although the latter's suite is better integrated with a file management schema that resembles a familiar Outlook-like directory: Different file types can be tagged and mixed in the same directory in several ways, while Zoho's multiple entry points can be confusing.

Both deliver most of the functions we use most often, although uploaded Office files may need some tweaking. Some fonts and other minor formatting can get changed in transit. But there is no learning curve with either suite: Just log on, upload a file and edit with familiar Office 2003 commands.

Since these are native web applications that house your work "up there," collaboration couldn't be more intuitive. Files that are shared or public are simply posted in their respective folders with various permissions applied to them. Colors, strikeouts and other logical conventions designate word and cell edits by different collaborators, items being grayed out during editing.

You can save documents and spreadsheets in a number of formats beyond Office '03, including PDF and HTML. They can be posted in public folders on the Google or Zoho sites or easily published to your blog or website.

These suites won't serve every user in every situation, especially if you're a desktop publisher or have a lot of spreadsheet macros. But the success or failure of web services won't turn on how closely they replicate Office. They speak to a different usage model for a younger, web-acclimated, increasingly mobile audience.

Long term, the epicenter of computing is shifting away from the paradigm of the really big OS with really big programs. The web is becoming the "away" OS, with large application bundles being disaggregated into point services. Small, formerly unserved needs are being met by user-invented widgets.

Not that there isn't still a place for a hard drive full of expensive software. But that's no longer your only option.