Small Business Guide to Online Office Suites

Productivity suites have moved beyond the office and into the cloud. We list the pros, the cons, and the features you need to stay productive. Plus, we look at the three leading online office suites.

Written by the Small Business Computing Staff

The adoption of online software and services in lieu of their desktop-bound counterparts shows no signs of slowing. But if you're like most small business owners, you and your employees still use a locally installed office productivity suite for essential tasks such as word processing, crunching numbers and creating presentations. But today's cloud-based office suites deliver all of the features you're likely to need, plus something you really haven't had up until now: choice.

Office Productivity Moves to the Cloud

The benefits of online office productivity software mirror those of cloud applications in general. For starters, you don't have to install or maintain any software; all you need is an account log-in, a Web browser and an Internet connection. Armed thusly, you can use any computer or browser-enabled device (such as a Google Chromebook or Microsoft's Surface tablet) to access the programs—not just a PC with the suite installed.

Office 365 Outlook

Figure 1: Office 365 includes a version of Outlook for your email and scheduling needs.

Another plus: your files reside in the cloud for anywhere-anytime access, rather than on a desktop or network folder that's hard to access when you're away from the office. The application service provider typically provides storage redundancy, which means that your files are backed up if a server or drive on their end goes down. And you never have to worry about updating or upgrading the software, since the service provider rolls out new features and updates continuously behind the scenes.

Notable Cons to Cloud Office Suites

Granted, the cloud–based software model has its downside. The Achilles heel, of course is connectivity: If you lack Internet access, you can't get to your files and the applications to open them. Employees who travel a lot will need a Plan B, such as a locally installed office suite (good-enough freeware suites are available). And if you are on a slow connection (such as a shared Wi-Fi hotspot), you'll experience noticeable lag compared to working with a locally installed application.

However, with wider availability of Wi-Fi on planes and the ability to use your smartphone's 3G/4G cellular service to set up a personal Wi-Fi hotspot for your laptop, connectivity is becoming less of an issue.

Zoho writer

Figure 2: Zoho's Productivity Apps includes Writer, its word processing software.

The other issue is cost. Most service providers offer free versions of their office productivity suites, but those generally deliver fewer features than business customers require and expect. Access to the business-class suites requires a subscription plan, typically priced per person/per month.

Those ongoing costs will eventually add up to more than you would have paid for a traditional desktop version of the leading office suite. Remember though, the subscription includes the cost of upgrading and maintaining the software—you no longer have that chore on your plate.

The 4 Must-have Productivity Applications

Any online service purporting to be a replacement for your desktop copy of Microsoft Office will offer email, word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications. The differences lay in the number and variety of features those applications offer—and how easy they are to use. Here's what you need to know for each application.

The Email Application

The email application is arguably the most important of the group, since you and your employees use it all day, every day. Be sure the online productivity suite that you pick has all the features we've grown accustomed to using:

  • @YourCompany.com: The email program should let you create email addresses that look like they come from your domain, not the service provider's. Indeed, nothing screams "I'm a rinky-dink company" more than an email address that ends with the email service's name. Those are fine for personal email addresses, but not for professional use.
  • Spell check: The only thing more unprofessional than an email without your company name in the "from" field is an email riddled with misspellings. Be sure the email application has a spell-check function to flag incorrect words and, ideally, suggest the right one. And remember: spell check is a helpful tool, but it won’t catch instances of wrong, yet correctly spelled words, such as using "their" instead of "there," so always read email before hitting "send."
  • Contacts: Your email program is also a natural place to store contact information that goes beyond a person's email address. The contact list should be searchable and sortable, and it should offer fields for multiple phone numbers and a blank field where you can enter pertinent notes related to that individual.
  • Calendar: The suite you select must offer a calendar component, either as part of the email application or closely integrated with it. In addition to viewing and scheduling your own appointments, the calendar should let you invite other employees to an appointment (and to see their availability). And of course, the capability to set reminders for a pending appointment is crucial to keep you on schedule.
  • Folders: Don't be that person who has six months' worth of messages in his Inbox. Any good email program lets you create folders where you can store messages that are somehow related (that pertain to a particular topic or project, for example, or that come from a certain person). Making use of the feature will help you increase your productivity.
  • Search: For those times when you miss-file a message or just can't remember where you put it, the ability to quickly search your mail for a particular keyword is a must.
  • Tasks: The online office suite should offer an area where you can enter tasks and set reminders. It's most likely part of the email program, but some services have it as a standalone applet.
  • Automatic replies: Yes, as the business owner you are always available via phone and email. But what about your employees? An often overlooked feature, the ability to set automatic replies for messages that come in when someone is out of the office is helpful for people trying to contact your business.

Online Office Suite Productivity Applications

The Word Processor Application

Arguably the second-most important application in any office suite (online or otherwise) is the word processor. This is where you and your employees create and view critical documents, so it needs to be both powerful and easy to use. Make sure it includes these features.

  • Templates: Simple documents are easy enough to start from scratch. But having an available library of pre-formatted templates for special documents—such as a newsletter with multiple columns or a brochure with spots for photos already laid out—will save your employees untold hours and hassle.
  • Spell check: Whether you're a bad speller or just a bad typist, spell-check will keep you from looking silly. The word processor should offer on-the-fly spell checking (where it underlines misspelled words), as well as auto-correction. Grammar checking is nice, too. It flags all those partial and run-on sentences that make us sound like third-graders.
  • Formatting: The word processor should have a toolbar full of formatting choices for selecting font sizes, typefaces and type effects (bold, italic, underline, strikethrough, subscript, superscript, highlight, and so on). It should also let you turn text into live hyperlinks. You'll also need all the paragraph and page formatting options you've become used to at your disposal.
  • Revisions and markup: Track revisions (and who made them) in a document is a key feature in modern word processors, and a good one will also let you add comments in the margin or in digital "sticky notes." A word processor should also let you compare two versions of a document to create a "redlined" version that shows what has changed.
  • File format support: Inevitably, you and your employees will need to share the documents you create beyond the confines of the program you used to create it. You need to be able to save and download files in the most common file formats: Microsoft Word (.doc/.docx), PDF, Rich Text Format (.rtf) and plain text (.txt).
  • Advanced features: You don't use most of the features of your word processor on any given day, but when you need them, the advanced tools can be life-savers. Look for a program that offers search-and-replace, mail-merge features, support for adding headers/footers and pagination, the ability to easily embed pictures and clip-art, and maybe even one that can automatically generate a table of contents.

The Spreadsheet Application

No business can run without a spreadsheet program. Whether you create simple tables, colorful charts or a complete diary of your company's health, make sure the office suite spreadsheet offers these essential features.

  • Table formats: Sometimes simple grid lines just don't cut it. A good spreadsheet program provides a range of table formats.
  • Data import: Much of the data that winds up in a spreadsheet started out somewhere else. Make sure your spreadsheet program can import—and properly parse—text and data from a range of sources: everything from word processing documents, to CSV files, and database files.
  • Data sort: Be sure you can sort and re-sort data on a whim by any parameter you choose.
  • Auto sum:  Why add and subtract yourself (and risk introducing errors) when you can select a few cells and have the program do it for you?
  • Formulas: When you need more than a quick tabulation, formulas do the job. They let you apply a complex equation to specified cells on the fly. Look for a program that offers a range of formula types.
  • Charts and graphs:  No one wants to scrutinize a table of numbers to figure out what you're trying to tell them. Make sure the spreadsheet program can easily turn those data sets into a range of good-looking charts and graphs.
  • Pivot tables: Don't know what they are or how to use them? Neither do we, but there's probably one person in your organization who can't live without them—usually the person who tracks where the money comes in and goes out. 

The Presentations Application

Digital slide presentations are a necessary evil in the business world. Everyone says they hate them, yet everyone expects you to give one. A better presentation package lets you make a good impression without having to have a design degree. Look for software that includes these features.

  • Stylized templates: You have trouble matching your belt to your shoes, so how are you going to properly mix typefaces, color schemes, and graphic elements to come up with something pleasing yet effective? Make sure the presentation package has a wide variety of templates to use as a starting point.
  • Transitions and animations: Admittedly, folks got a little crazy with slick transition effects (3D page-turn, anyone?) when they were first introduced, but that's not to say they aren't useful for jazzing things up. Look for a few tasteful options in the menu, along with options to easily add animation effects (such as an arrow that slides in from the side) to highlight key points.
  • Audio and video: A better presentation package lets you insert audio and video clips with a few clicks of the mouse.
  • Spell check:  The only thing worse than a typo in a word processing document is one in 48-point type projected onto a wall. Be sure the presentation package provides on-the-fly spell checking to flag your mistakes.
  • Export to PDF:  Unless you own a printing business, you will undoubtedly distribute your presentation electronically. Be sure the presentation package lets you save the document as a PDF file so that other people can open it easily. The capability to save your presentation as a Microsoft PowerPoint file (.ppt/.pptx) wouldn't hurt.

Other Online Office Suite Features to Consider

Beyond the applications themselves, a cloud office suite will include features not found with a desktop program. You'll be granted a certain amount of storage space for your files (say, 10GB per person), and you can expect collaboration features that let multiple people access and work on files. Some service providers also have mobile apps for smartphones and tablets, which let you and your employees open and edit files on any Internet-connected device.

Most providers also deliver other services in the cloud, either as part of your subscription or for extra cost (depending on the plan you choose). You might find an application to hold online meetings, a CRM (customer relationship management) component, website building and hosting, and more.

The Top 3 Online Office Suites for Small Business

We took a look at three leading online office suites to see how they stack up. One of them should suit your business.

Microsoft Office 365 Small Business Premium

Microsoft Office is the 800-pound gorilla of desktop office suites, but it was a relative latecomer to the cloud. But Office 365 has a couple of aces in its hand that make it a must-consider for small businesses. Most importantly, some editions of the online suite—such as the Microsoft Office 365 Small Business Premium version we looked at—include a desktop version of Office 365.

First, each employee you add to your subscription can use Office on Demand (the cloud applications, supported on Windows 7 and Windows 8 PCs) or good old Office locally installed on a PC. The second ace: The cloud versions of the applications have the same look, feel and features of their desktop counterparts. That completely eliminates the learning curve for anyone already familiar with Office.

The suite includes local and cloud versions of Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, and OneNote (the excellent note-taking app)—plus local versions of Publisher, the desktop publishing program, and Access database. You also get the Office Mobile mobile app, (downloadable for Android, iOS and Windows Phone devices) for viewing and editing Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. You can also use the OneNote, Outlook Web App, Lync Mobile, and SharePoint Newsfeed apps on most mobile devices.

As for storage, the subscription includes access to Microsoft's SkyDrive Pro cloud storage/collaboration service and provides 25GB of storage for each employee for (virtually) anywhere access to their documents. SkyDrive Pro also lets you share files with other people inside and outside your organization, control which people can see and edit each file, and sync files with PCs and mobile devices.

For email, Outlook delivers a 50GB mailbox per user and supports sending attachments up to 25MB in size. (And yes, you can use your domain name in email addresses for a professional look.)

Microsoft includes a host of extra features. The included Lync application lets you host online meetings with audio, HD video and one-click screen sharing. You can connect with other Lync users via instant message, voice calls, and video calls, and you can let people know your availability with your online status.

A Team Sites feature allows access to (and sharing of) documents with team members and it includes 10GB of baseline storage, plus 500MB of storage per person. Microsoft Office 365 Small Business Premium even includes website hosting and templates and tools to build your website—with no additional monthly hosting fees. The service costs $15 per person per month, or you can opt to pay $150 per person annually, which works out to $12.50 per month.

Google Apps for Business

One of the earliest, best-known—and free—online office suites, Google Apps has garnered a large following. But business customers will want to step up to the paid version, which delivers professional-level features such as email addresses with your domain name, more storage and videoconferencing features.

Google Apps spreadsheet

Figure 3: Google Apps includes Sheets to handle small business spreadsheet tasks.

The heart of Google Apps for Business is Google Docs, which includes a word processor (Docs), spreadsheet (Sheets) and presentation package (Slides). Those tightly integrate with the Google Drive online storage service (30GB per person included in the base subscription). Drive gives you access to your files from anywhere, across Mac, PC, and mobile devices; simply log on to Drive to see your files, and then double-click on one to open it in the associated application.

You can also download the Drive app to your PC, and it will automatically sync files from your computer to the cloud; update a file on one device, and the changes are automatically saved to Drive and your other devices.

The familiar Gmail component offers 30GB of mailbox storage per user, custom email addresses, labels and folders, spell check, a translation feature, and of course unparalleled search capabilities.  And it integrates tightly with the included Calendar application that lets you schedule events and see the availability of other Calendar users.

The cloud-based office suite also includes Hangouts, Google's video-chat application that lets you quickly initiate video calls with team members and people outside your organization (a maximum of 15 participants). Again, integration is the name of the game: you can schedule a Hangout from Calendar, start a chat from your inbox, or collaborate on a Google Drive file during a video meeting.

The Sites application lets you build a website or a specific project team site that can be private to a specified group or shared with other people. Google Apps for Business costs $5 per person per month, and you can add Vault (archiving, e-discovery and information governance capabilities) for an additional $5 per person, per month.

Zoho Productivity Apps

Zoho is an entire universe of cloud applications for all aspects of your business. Zoho Business Apps includes a CRM application, contact manager, online bookkeeping and invoicing, email marketing and much more.

The Collaboration Apps deliver a chat program, discussion groups, an online meetings application, mail program, project management, and a Docs app for storing and sharing documents online. On the office applications front, Zoho has a Productivity Apps  portal that offers calendar, notebook, word processor, spreadsheet and presentation applications.

The office productivity applications are remarkably full-featured, and the menu structure mimics Microsoft Office, so using them won't be such a departure for you and your employees. You can create a new document directly in the application, or upload files to private and shared folders and launch them from there.

Best of all, the productivity applications don't cost anything. If you opt to add other applications, such as Zoho CRM, you can stick with the free editions or upgrade to more full-featured paid versions.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Jan 28th 2014
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