Moving Your Office Online

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Google Apps
Google, Inc.
Main Applications: word processor, spreadsheet, database, email, shared calendar, instant messaging

Google has taken the basic office productivity software, along with its Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Talk applications that it provides to consumers, and kicked it up a notch for enterprise customers. Google is offering a free ad-driven version and a reasonably priced premium version that forgoes the ads, gives users 25GB of online storage space, and provides APIs to the enterprise infrastructure, all for a flat rate of $50 per user per year. So far, large corporate early adopters include, Proctor & Gamble, and GE.

According to Rajen Sheth, senior product manager for Google Apps, Google made a conscious decision early on to make Google Apps only available as an online service. This is partly because it found that companies were comfortable with a software-as-a-service (SaaS) approach and partly because Google believes there is a lot of value in its data centers—it can run these services at a lower cost than just about anyone in the market.

The enterprise version gives the enterprise IT staff administrative control of the applications through a web-based interface where administrators can manage users and user accounts and can mandate which applications users can access, as well as control how data is shared inside and outside the company. Currently, users cannot access the applications when offline, a limitation Sheth says the company is working to change with the recent release of Google Gears, a solution enabling web applications to work offline and synchronize with online content the next time the user connects.

Users manage and upload documents from the desktop in the Google Apps document manager and can open most Microsoft documents in Google Apps, but it’s not necessarily going to be a perfect conversion. It may startle some users to find their Word documents displayed without page breaks (something that’s true of all the online vendors). Some users could be disappointed that more advanced features like pivot tables and macros in the spreadsheet or multimedia in presentations are not included, but it does a particularly nice job of picking up and maintaining format and styles in presentations. Simple spreadsheets also look great, and there are a wide range of formulas to choose from.

One other notable function of the Google Docs system is the collaboration feature, which lets users share a document with others and control who can then edit, view, or email it. This gives your users an element of control over what happens to a document after it’s sent out and it tracks how many people have viewed it or edited it.

Google Docs provides a standard level of functionality combined with mail and shared calendars to give your organization a solid alternative to Microsoft Office from a stable company.

Glide Business
Transmedia Corp.
Main Applications: word processor, spreadsheet, database, project manager, email, calendar, chat, and more

Glide Business provides an online operating environment with all of the tools your company needs to work and share applications and files across your desktop and mobile environments. Of all the tools in this overview, it comes the closest to fulfilling McNabb’s vision of a tool that can help people organize their entire digital lives, but it requires that an organization use Glide’s tools to do it. Whether they’d be willing to commit completely to Glide is still open to question.

Glide includes the standard word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program. However, unlike Google, it lets users access applications whether they are online or off. Glide uses a separate synchronizing tool to ensure that content is updated whenever users connect and to provide a way to move content between the desktop and online environments. In addition, there is a version of Glide that can be installed locally on a hard drive. The local version offers some additional features like pivot tables in spreadsheets not found in the online counterparts. Glide costs $10 per user per year along with a scaling annual fee for storage ranging from $20 for 10GB up to $500 for 400GB.

Enterprise customers can install Glide Business behind the firewalls on their own servers or let Glide host the service. Regardless of the method, administrators can control access to applications and files and track which files have been used, where they went, and who sent them, which provides solid security control. What’s more, administrators can set up security at the project level and set the security levels at whatever level they wish, on an individual basis. Administrators should also like the fact that Glide is platform-independent and that there is a version of the synchronizing tool for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Glide Business includes integrated chat, email, and sharing available from tabs within every Glide document. Users can set detailed attachment rights such as allowing such as allowing a certain number of views, setting an expiration date for the file, and so forth. Glide also handles multimedia files well, enabling users to attach and control multimedia files regardless of format, and recipients can always play them within the defined rights by clicking a link in the email. Another differentiator for Glide is the way it seamlessly links the desktop and mobile environments, letting users access files and share files and functions from a mobile device or desktop computer, yet it still gives administrators the same back-end control of content regardless of which device users employ to access it.

Like Google Apps, users don’t get a perfect conversion or have all of the functions found in Microsoft Office. According to Transmedia CEO Donald Leka, the company aimed for 70% of the functionality of Excel. He admits that if you are using advanced accounting features, you won’t find every tool you need. However, he thinks what Glide does provide should satisfy most users.

Glide Business provides control, collaboration, and management across desktop and mobile environments on a variety of platforms and devices. It offers control over files and sophisticated synchronization, but it will need to prove to enterprise customers that it will be around for the long haul.

Zoho Business
AdventNet, Inc.
Main applications: word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, project planning, CRM, chat, and more

Zoho offers a comprehensive family of products that can handle almost any business task, but while it provides some central administration, it’s not the more comprehensive control offered in Google Apps and Glide Business. To be fair, Zoho Business positions itself as product more suited to small and medium businesses than large enterprise settings. To that end, you can define users and locations and assign users to groups, but you’ll have no control over access or content. Zoho Business is currently only available online, but the company is working with Google Gears to make it available offline with automatic synchronizing. It is available free during beta, but pricing is still being worked out for the initial release later this year.

To Zoho’s credit, the business product offers a clean, unified interface where you can access any program in the suite. The day’s calendar and tasks and other key information are displayed right up front to give users a starting page for their day. From here, users can access each program in the suite easily. Unfortunately, users can’t import local files from their hard drive directly from each program as they can with the stand-alone versions of the office productivity applications. Instead, Zoho has a separate document manager link where users handle these tasks.

One of the big differentiators for Zoho Business is its CRM product. While Glide offers some CRM functionality, this is a full-blown CRM program and even includes a Microsoft Outlook plug-in which enables users to access Zoho CRM functions from the friendly confines of Outlook. On the down side, this tool costs extra. While the first three users are free, each additional user costs $12 per month.

Zoho offers a comprehensive set of tools in a nicely designed interface, but its lack of strong administrative support tools could be a problem for enterprise users looking for an online alternative.

ThinkFree Premium
ThinkFree, Inc.
Main Applications: word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program

Of all the products in this overview, ThinkFree is the one that aims to be the purest office suite replacement. There is a premium edition with online and offline functionality with automatic synching and also a server edition a company can install behind the firewall. While it has some other interesting features, its basic purpose it to provide you with office functionality.

In fact, ThinkFree is the only suite of those covered here that uses Microsoft extensions, .doc, .ppt, and .xls. ThinkFree uses the concept of a "webtop" (like a desktop for the web), which acts as a central place for organizing files and accessing the various applications in the suite. Users can upload files from their desktop, set up folders, and do other file management tasks. They can also control who can edit or just read documents, giving them some collaboration features, as well as control over the documents they send out—although not as much as provided by Glide or Google.

ThinkFree provides standard office functionality for a reasonable price, but it may not be enough for enterprise users looking for more control over the process. While the server edition does provide some administrative control over user accounts and file access, the Premium Edition has none. Administrators are limited to setting up accounts on individual desktops.

Ultimately, all of the suites in this overview offer a basic level of functionality, but each adds its own unique spin on its product. There is no denying that these are lower cost alternatives to Microsoft Office and the fact they are online can take some pressure off of IT to support these desktop applications. Yet whether companies feel comfortable doing that—even in an age when SaaS is growing increasingly common—is still open to question. However, without a doubt, the office space has begun to open up online, and enterprises are considering a move.

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