Working the Web 2.0

Microsoft Office is doomed. Eventually. Maybe. The prediction may be vague, tentative, and subject to dispute, but you hear it more and more. The reason is simple: Web-based services are duplicating--and, in some cases, surpassing--many of the features that have been the domain of desktop productivity applications.

Will any of these "Web 2.0" services render Microsoft's 800-pound gorilla of business productivity irrelevant someday? That remains to be seen. But there's a more immediate, equally interesting question: Just how useful are they right now?

I decided to answer that question by testing browser-based productivity services with real business tasks, namely my own: For ten days--incorporating time in the office and a quick business trip to Chicago--I would do my best to be productive without Microsoft Office. Going back to it would be permissible only when I couldn't find an online service that could do the job reasonably well.

I had lots of services to choose from--for every major Office application, one or more free rivals work right in your browser, from word processors (Writely, Zoho Writer) to project management tools (Basecamp) to full-blown suites (ThinkFree). All have comfortably familiar user interfaces. None are tethered to a particular PC, since they, and your documents, live on the Web rather than your hard drive. And many have clever, easy-to-use collaborative features.

(I didn't try to replace Outlook, but I had a good excuse. At PC World, we run Lotus Notes rather than Outlook, and I know of no truly satisfying way to do that in a browser--including via Lotus's own Web-based service. Pledging to spend ten days using only that clunky interface would have been so unbearable that I didn't even try.)

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