The Best of Both Worlds
Online office suites offer you a one-stop shop where you can both store and manipulate your data. In contrast, various alternatives invite you to use a combination of online and offline resources to keep tighter control over your data and applications.
There are plenty of good reasons to use a hybrid approach. You may not be comfortable with the security risk of storing data online, or you may dislike the feature set, interface, or slow response times of some of the online app services. And since it just isn't possible to remain connected to the Internet all the time, you need to have options that don't depend on it.
Online Storage, Local Editing
One popular and easy way to take advantage of the Internet is to use it exclusively for raw data storage. When you store data online, it is always backed up automatically. And giving other users access to your files with these services is easy. You can send the files via e-mail, share folders with other users within the interface, or post the files to a public Web site that anyone working from a Web-connected computer can link to.
Unlike hosted application services, online storage services like Xdrive don't care what kinds of files you store on their sites, giving you more freedom to stash whatever you want there. Xdrive's Windows Explorer plug-in lets you access your online files from your desktop directly, without ever firing up a browser. The service provides 5GB of free storage, upgradable to 50GB for $10 a month. Microsoft is prepping its own service, Windows Live Folders, which should integrate seamlessly with Windows Vista; this service launched in late June in limited beta to a few thousand users; Microsoft says that it will soon extend the beta to more users.
For complicated scenarios--especially ones where you may need to share data with other users--consider three sites: Basecamp, WebOffice, and Central Desktop. All three sites provide advanced project-management and collaboration systems designed to give users control over large-scale projects, with features like checkout of hosted documents, to-do lists, calendars, internal chat systems, and discussion boards. Prices for these services depend on the number of users or projects, not on tiers of functionality. Prices can reach $700 a month for big operations (to get WebOffice's 100-user license). At the low end, Central Desktop's free basic service plan (25MB of storage for five users) delivers all the functionality of more expensive plans. A similar five-user plan in WebOffice costs $60 per month. Basecamp's pricing is based on the number of projects: Managing five active projects with the service costs $24 per month.