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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Making Choices

And so the experiment began:

Day 1: Question one: Which services will I use to replace Word and Excel, the programs I spend most of my time in? Legitimate contenders abound; I consider using ThinkFree; it's a venerable and feature-rich suite that I ultimately decide against because it's written in Java, a technology that acts up often enough that I worry about relying on it.

I end up choosing two Google services I've already used and liked--Writely for word processing and Google Spreadsheets for number crunching. Both sport radically fewer features than their Microsoftian equivalents. And both can open and save Microsoft file formats, so I'm able to work collaboratively with colleagues without their even knowing I'm trying to avoid Word and Excel.

Still, the apps are less a mini-suite and more an interesting study in contrasts. Writely, which is labeled a beta, is so fully evolved that there will be only one moment during my ten-day experiment when I try to do something in it and can't. But Google Spreadsheets, which Google calls a "Labs" test product, is still an exceptionally rough draft--it can't generate charts, and calling its sorting options bare-bones feels overly complimentary.

Writely and Google Spreadsheets are basic, but so is a pretty high percentage of the work I do on any given day. Most of the stuff I throw at them, they handle reasonably well, and I like the fact that I don't have to worry about whether my files are on my work PC, my home desktop, or one of my two notebooks--with Web-based storage, they're all available everywhere. (Assuming that I can get online, that is.)

Unfortunately, even with so much going right, I find my journal evolving into a series of notes on those instances when these services don't do want I need...

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The Future of Fun 100 Fearless Forecasts
Incredible Tech: Lies Ahead A Look Back

Backsliding to the Desktop

Day 3: For the first time during the experiment, I'm confronted with a task beyond simple word processing and spreadsheet wrangling: I've been asked to prepare an organizational chart of my department. But Writely has no drawing feature whatsoever, and the browser-based drawing tool ajaxSketch doesn't offer anything designed to help with org charts.

So I turn back to a desktop application--namely the beta version of Microsoft Word 2007, which can produce slick-looking charts. I do notice, however, that every time I add a new employee to the tree, the program gets bogged down a little more; by the time I've plugged in the whole staff, Word is hellaciously slow in a way that Writely never is.

Later, my editor will alert me to Gliffy, a Web-based tool that might have done the job. Too bad I didn't know about it at the time.

Day 4: I begin to think about my upcoming trip to Chicago in earnest. The major reason I'm going is to do a presentation for several hundred Illinois-based accountants. A presentation means slides; slides mean that it's time to determine whether I can do PowerPoint-like stuff with a Web service.

I check out two browser-based presentation tools, Thumbstacks.com and Zoho Show. Both offer the ability to conduct presentations over the Net--an intriguing option I don't actually need at the moment. But neither offers enough functionality yet to give PowerPoint a flesh wound, let alone kill it. Besides, I'll probably be slogging away on the presentation during the flight to Chicago, when I know I'll be sans Internet access. So I do my show in PowerPoint, as usual.

Day 6: Waiting for my plane to Chicago, I want to refer to a document I created in Writely. It dawns on me that I'll have to use the airport's hotspot service, which costs $10 an hour. Writely and Google Spreadsheets may be free, but getting access to them can be downright pricey.

Special Report: Tomorrow's Technology

The Future of Your PC The Future of Robots
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The Future of the Web The Future of Nanotech
The Future of OSs The Future of You
The Future of Fun 100 Fearless Forecasts
Incredible Tech: Lies Ahead A Look Back

No Connection

Day 7: Mission accomplished--I've given my speech, and the Chicago bean counters seemed pleased. But rather than heading home, I'm making a side trip to St. Louis to visit my Aunt Carolyn. Her house is not exactly a hotbed of connectivity. In fact, she positively revels in the fact that she's the last holdout in the family who doesn't have a PC.

Up in her guest bedroom, my notebook sees several Wi-Fi networks but can't connect to any of them. In theory, my Palm Treo 650 should be able to double as a modem, but the notebook has chosen this moment to fail to recognize that the Treo is connected at all. Dial-up? With enough effort, it might be doable, but the bedroom lacks a phone line, and I don't feel like crouching in the hallway near the closest jack.

Bottom line: For the moment, I'm cut off from my Web-based tools...which, since I'm taking a vacation day, is probably a blessing.

Day 9: Back in the office, I'm gathering data on PCWorld.com's Web traffic for a staff meeting. I plug it all into a Google Spreadsheets worksheet and try to print it for distribution...whereupon I find that the service doesn't have a "Print" menu item. A little rummaging around in the help system reveals the counterintuitive fact that you're supposed to use a menu item called "Get HTML" to print. It provides no page setup options whatsoever.

Day 10: On the road again, I try to use Writely's built-in collaborative document sharing, which I've used before with good results, to send a document to a coworker. No dice--I give Writely her PC World e-mail address, but she's already signed up for Writely via a Gmail account, and it refuses to give her access to the file. "Wouldn't Web-based mail be faster?" she asks plaintively. She's right. And so I send her a plain old file attachment.

Special Report: Tomorrow's Technology

The Future of Your PC The Future of Robots
The Future of Cell Phones The Future of Privacy
The Future of the Web The Future of Nanotech
The Future of OSs The Future of You
The Future of Fun 100 Fearless Forecasts
Incredible Tech: Lies Ahead A Look Back

A Few Conclusions

If my mission was to try to live without Office, this experiment was an abject failure. But I did have fun. I learned a lot. And I got all my work done.

Herewith, a few conclusions:

Online storage can be addictive. Sitting down at any PC with a Web connection and having instant, effortless access to all your documents can change the way you work. (Microsoft, why hasn't this feature been built into Office for years?)

Even highly connected people aren't connected all the time. And a productivity tool that's available only when you're online is one that will never eliminate traditional software from your life.

These services are still extremely immature. Their streamlined simplicity can be refreshing (in some ways, Writely is already a more pleasant place to sling words than Office 2003). But even if a browser-based service gives you 80 percent of the Office tools you need, that missing 20 percent may be really, really important.

Ultimately, my ten-day trial left me thinking that Office won't be roadkill anytime soon. But Office living in happy coexistence with browser-based services? That's not just a possible future scenario--it's one that can make sense right now.

Special Report: Tomorrow's Technology

The Future of Your PC The Future of Robots
The Future of Cell Phones The Future of Privacy
The Future of the Web The Future of Nanotech
The Future of OSs The Future of You
The Future of Fun 100 Fearless Forecasts
Incredible Tech: Lies Ahead A Look Back
Harry McCracken is editor in chief of PC World.

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