Let the 'Net Add Flexibly to Your Productivity Apps

Friday Jan 11th 2008 by Joseph Moran

Surveys suggest that most people aren't familiar with Internet-based productivity applications, so this week we'll take a look at the pros and cons of using one as an alternative or adjunct to conventional business software.

A few weeks back we talked about the popularity of Web-based e-mail, which is widely used not only because it's often free, but because it allows you to send, receive and access old messages from any system with an Internet connection.

E-mail was one of the first Web-based applications and it arguably remains the most ubiquitous, but it's by no means the only one. These days there are a variety of Web-based business productivity suites available for use at little to no cost. A recent NPD survey indicated that 94 percent of respondents had never tried a Web-based productivity suite and 73 percent weren't even aware of their existence, so this week we'll take a look at the pros and cons of using one as an alternative or adjunct to conventional business productivity software.

Using regular software for word processing and related tasks seems simple enough — buy the software, install it on your computer and use it. But when you regularly need to work from lots of different computers or locations, things can get a bit more complicated. Installing your software on multiple computers and/or taking a notebook with you on the road gives you more flexibility, but those measures can be time-consuming and costly, and they still require you to be tethered to particular computers in order to use your applications.

By comparison, Web-based productivity suites afford the same anywhere, anytime access you get with Web-based e-mail. Even better, since application providers typically provide ample online storage (usually 1 GB, and sometimes more) you also get a centralized place to store documents, eliminating the need to carry files around with you on a flash drive or other storage device.

Web-based applications were once known for sparse user interfaces, but today programming techniques like Ajax (Asynchronous Javascript and XML) allow for user interfaces that look and feel similar to those of programs installed directly on your computer. The online nature of this type of software can also aid in document sharing and collaboration; rather than e-mailing individual copies of files around to various recipients, you can simply e-mail multiple people a link back to a centralized copy of the file.

This can make it easier to track comments and revisions when you do group editing of a document. Web-based productivity suites don't limit you to working with new documents — most allow you to upload existing files and import a variety of document formats, including files created with Microsoft Office or OpenOffice.org. Similarly, they often allow you to export your files in various formats, including HTML and PDF.

Play It Safe
For all the benefits Web-based productivity software offers, it pays to be aware of some important limitations, too. For starters, you'll want to have a reliable ISP, because unlike when everything you work with is located on your computer's hard drive, the loss of your Internet connection will almost certainly mean loss of access to Web applications — as well as to your data if it's stored online (one provider — Zoho — recently announced the capability to use its word processor offline; expect others to follow suit with similar capabilities).

Also, it pays to be patient when using Web-based productivity applications. They're lightweight and usually launch quickly, often as fast or faster than conventional installed software. But even when your connection to the Internet is humming along fine there may be slight network lag when performing certain operations, and you may experience access and/or performance problems depending on how taxed the application servers are. Such issues aren't especially common, but they do occur from time to time.

The 80-20 Rule of Software
There's an adage that says that 80 percent of business productivity software users use only 20 percent of the available features. That's probably not too far from the truth, and if it applies to you the capabilities you get with Web-based productivity applications should be sufficient. But Web-based productivity applications generally don't provide nearly the same level of features as Microsoft Office or even an open-source alternative like StarOffice or OpenOffice.org, which is worth keeping in mind if you regularly make use of things like advanced text formatting or spreadsheet functions.

Finally, different providers claim varying levels of compatibility with conventional office suites, particularly Microsoft Office. In some cases, documents created with conventional applications like Word or Excel may not look entirely as expected when you open them in a Web-based suite.

Web-based productivity software is a nascent and rapidly evolving product category, and while it may not necessarily compel you to uninstall your office suite and start using the disc as a coaster, you may find it a handy option at least in certain situations.

Below you'll find an alphabetical list of some Web-based productivity suite providers you can try. At a minimum each provides online versions of word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation graphics applications, but some also offer additional types of software, including PIMs, databases, drawing tools or project-management software. All of these companies offer free access (though most require some form of registration) and in some cases also offer upgraded versions with more capabilities and/or storage for an additional (and usually nominal) charge.

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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