Online Office Apps: Google Docs vs. ThinkFree vs. Zoho

For quite a while, Web-based suites -- which offered word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and other tools associated with desktop office suites -- were extolled not because they did these things well, but because they could do them at all. But the three major competitors, Google Docs, ThinkFree, and Zoho, have all made major improvements in recent months. They're becoming both broader, with more applications, and deeper, with more features and functionality in existing apps.

The question is: Are these three applications really ready to take on a desktop-based heavy hitter like Microsoft Office?

True Challengers to Office?

Microsoft Office (primarily its Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications) has long been famous for including every possible feature, no matter how obscure -- and for imposing a hefty load of code on your hard drive to provide all those features, not to mention the heavyweight user interface it takes to support them.

Early versions of Web-based productivity suites tried hard to imitate Office, but they were at a double disadvantage: They didn't offer anything like the feature set of the Microsoft applications, and they were severely handicapped by what it was possible to do in a browser (in controlling the on-screen display of the text sizes and attributes, for example).

A couple of things have happened over time, however. One is that the programmability of browsers has been radically improved, beginning with AJAX techniques. Support for standards has improved as well (though there's still a lot of ground to be made up here), so that advanced tricks with cascading style sheets, for example, work more dependably across the available browsers and provide much better on-screen rendering of the documents.

Another change has been the spread of the open-source software movement. Desktop competitors to Microsoft Office, such as OpenOffice.org, have begun to get some traction. These suites may not come with all the features of the Office apps, but they don't come with its price tag, either. They also offer good functionality, good support for Office document formats (as well as truly open formats of their own), and you pay whatever you want to pay -- or nothing at all. As a result, users have become more open to considering alternatives to Microsoft's ubiquitous suite.

The Contenders

While Google Docs, ThinkFree and Zoho vary in the breadth of the applications they offer, their features and their usability, they are all capable of doing real, useful work. They do what you expect of productivity apps -- create documents, spreadsheets and presentations -- in sophisticated fashion.

Then they take advantage of the fact that they are Web-based to add another level of productivity. In various ways, they incorporate "presence" features that let you enable collaboration with others from within the apps themselves -- you can e-mail files, share access to files (either read-only or read/write) with individual contacts or groups, or publish files (to a blog, a Web page, or a select group of contacts).

All three of these Web-based suites are free, and an account includes storage for your documents (ThinkFree and Zoho offer 1GB; Google doesn't specify a size limit, but it lets you store up to 5,000 documents and 5,000 images online).

And because you work in a Web browser, they're cross-platform applications by default: You can create a presentation on a Linux box at home, edit it on a Mac at the office, and display it on a client's PC. Support for mobile devices is still in its early stages, but versions of some of the apps are available for smart phones as well.

Google Docs

Google Inc.'s Google Docs sticks to the basics but does them elegantly. It offers just the classic three productivity applications: word processor, spreadsheet and presentation editor. But its user interface seems especially well thought-out.

Its file organizer is uncluttered but provides a very usable management console for uploading, downloading and creating new files in any of the suite's three applications. The Google Docs word processor and presentation apps present particularly clean user interfaces -- something they can get away with because they provide arguably the least functionality of the three suites.

Google, of course, offers a variety of Web-based apps, some of which can also be considered important parts of any productivity suite -- Gmail, for example, or Google Calendar. However, they are not really integrated with the other applications (except via a small set of links on the top left of each Google page).

Google Docs has made many small improvements in the last year, and one really big one -- Gears (until very recently called Google Gears), a software platform that works as a browser extension to let you take your documents offline, work with Web applications while you're disconnected, and then sync your changes automatically when you reconnect. Besides Google Docs, a handful of other Web apps (including rival Zoho) currently work with Gears, and more are expected.

ThinkFree Online

ThinkFree Corp.'s ThinkFree Online can be used independently, but users are heavily encouraged to use it as an adjunct to ThinkFree Office, the offline software version. For example, its sync tool, ThinkFree Manager, is available to all buyers of its desktop version of ThinkFree Office, so documents stored in a ThinkFree Web account can be worked on offline and automatically synced when you reconnect.

ThinkFree has also improved the integration of its apps with a file-management console called "My Office" that supports hierarchical folders, and tracks files you have published or shared with others.

ThinkFree has also added an offline capability for all users of its online apps by letting them download and install an ad-supported version of the ThinkFree Office desktop apps, and including ThinkFree Manager, an offline file manager that keeps track of local files. When a Web connection is available, you can log into ThinkFree Manager and run a sync process that synchronizes all the documents changed while you were offline with their online versions stored in your ThinkFree Web account. ThinkFree has also improved the integration of its online apps with a file-management console called "My Office" that supports hierarchical folders and tracks files you have published or shared with others.

ThinkFree Online offers the same three applications as Google Docs, plus a couple of extras that are more or less "coming attractions":

  • A Workspace application that doesn't do much yet but looks as if it is intended to be a collaboration space that would let a team share documents and create threaded discussions.

  • A billboard for a forthcoming Notes application that ThinkFree describes as a "Web Editor" that will handle formats such as .doc, .docx (the current Office standard) and PDF, and will offer WYSIWYG features not currently found in the current ThinkFree word processor.

ThinkFree's user interface ranks only slightly behind that of Google Docs: Visually, it feels slightly more cluttered, but its file organizer works well, and its applications perhaps come the closest of the three Web-based offerings to matching the functionality of Microsoft Office. ThinkFree makes a selling point of its close resemblance to Office, in fact: The applications look and work like the traditional Office 97/2003 apps (before Office 2007 and the Ribbon interface came along).

Zoho

If there's a trophy for the company that takes Web-based apps the most seriously, Zoho may have already retired it. The company offers something like 20 products online, some free and some not, which range from basic productivity apps to customer relationship management systems and webconferencing tools.

The range of applications is large, but their integration as a suite is spotty. Once you log in, you can switch to other Zoho apps without having to log in again each time, but each application is a stand-alone. While Google Docs and ThinkFree offer file organizer views that let you organize your files into folders and see them all in one place, Zoho does not. Each application shows you just the files you have created in that app in a long list that you can sort, but not subdivide into folders.

Zoho has begun to build offline operation into its applications by making them compatible with Google's Gears. Currently Writer utilizes Gears, but other Zoho apps don't yet.

So which of these Web-based suites would be the best to use in place of Microsoft Office (or any other desktop suite)?

Word Processing

Word processing was one of the personal computer's first killer apps, and it is still the cornerstone of any productivity suite.

Google Docs is the lightweight in the group, with the fewest word-processing features (even its find-and-replace function is marked "beta," which tells you something), but this is not necessarily a bad thing. If you like a clean interface, then Google's word processor is for you. Documents open by default in a new "fixed-width" view that's the equivalent of looking at the "page preview" mode of Microsoft Word.

And Docs does have some interesting tricks -- it lets you treat the document as a Web page and edit its HTML and CSS information, for example. Given that you can "publish" any Google document as a Web page with its own URL, this means you can create Web pages that you can update from anywhere without needing to FTP files to your Web site.

It takes a lot for a Web app to handle user interface issues such as formatting the on-screen display of type fonts and supporting the extensive file management that's a big part of word processing. All three of these word processors are capable of tasks such as formatting the typefaces, placing and sizing graphics, arranging paragraphs, and setting up tables. But only ThinkFree offers the really sophisticated features, such as letting you format a hanging indent. (This apparently has as much to do with the user interface as it does coding -- Google Docs and Zoho preserve hanging indents in imported documents, but there's no place in their interfaces for you to create one.)

In fact, ThinkFree's word processor gives you the most features (or the most unimportant ones, depending on how you feel about, say, drop caps), and the most control over things like the content of headers and footers.

Zoho Writer falls nicely in the middle. It offers more formatting control than Google Docs (it's easier to set up a header and footer in Zoho Writer, for example, than it is in either of the other suites) but it isn't as feature-heavy as ThinkFree.

Zoho Writer's support for Google's Gears is another plus. Writer added the feature late last year, becoming one of the first non-Google apps to work with the technology. Other recent Writer improvements include pagination, document headers and footers, an equation editor with LaTeX support, and more.

Google Docs and Zoho Writer both include "presence" features that show you who else is editing the document in real time. Zoho goes even further to support chat, allowing you to either broadcast messages to all other users, or click on an individual in the Collaborators list and open a private chat window.

In testing, ThinkFree was the only app that had noticeable performance issues, mostly because it seemed to need to download Java code almost every time a new document type was opened, or after its browser window was closed or the computer was rebooted. ThinkFree also seemed to be more at the mercy of overall network performance than either Google Docs or Zoho.

Picking a Winner:

Overall Google Docs wins by a nose over Zoho Writer. Both let you work offline with Gears, and both maintain version histories. Google Docs takes the lead with its leaner, cleaner user interface and unified file management. ThinkFree is a good choice for Microsoft Word fans, but its performance issues keep it in third place.

Spreadsheets

The quality of the three suites' spreadsheet apps closely mirrors that of their word processors: All three offer clean user interfaces, good compatibility with Microsoft Excel, and only slight -- but important -- variations in their feature sets.

Zoho is the spreadsheet features winner. It will do pivot tables, macros and conditional formatting -- three capabilities that mark the current state of the art for spreadsheets. Google Docs does pivot tables via a plug-in. ThinkFree has promised a new version of its Calc app with pivot tables and macros, but as this was written, it had not yet delivered them.

There is less variation in the user interfaces of the three spreadsheet apps than there is in the word processors, perhaps because they all stick pretty close to Excel. However, there are some differences.

Both Google Docs' and Zoho Sheet's user interfaces are clean and consistent with their word processor's interfaces. ThinkFree Calc's user interface shows the suite's devotion to Office Excel in its menus and feature set.

ThinkFree Calc has a weakness that's also a minor annoyance in its word-processing and presentation apps: Its font rendering is not of the same quality as Google's and Zoho's. Large characters can look a little ragged, and blocks of smaller type lack the smoothness and contrast that the other apps show. It makes the ThinkFree apps look a little retro.

The Google Docs spreadsheet app, like its word processor, offers a limited number of features, but the defaults the designers have chosen are good ones. The charting function is one example: It works differently from Excel, but the difference allows you to select a multicolumn range for the chart -- the first column becomes the labels, and the second furnishes the chart data.

Google Docs gets extra points for its Gadgets, which are plug-ins that let it do fancier things with graphics -- you can create org charts or Gantt charts or interactive charts, for example. Other Gadgets let you use graphic objects in charts, or add Google features like Maps and Search.

Google Docs shows you who else is editing the spreadsheet and offers three tabs that let you publish (show the document on a public page), share (allow others to view and/or edit the document) and discuss (have a live chat with other users -- which raises the question of why we can't have this chat function in Google Docs' word processor, too). Zoho Sheet does something like this as well, although the user interface is different than that in Zoho Write.

All three spreadsheet apps felt slower than their counterpart word processors. Editing formulas or rearranging the columns of a worksheet at times seemed painfully slow. Odd things happened occasionally, as well. For example, rearranging the columns in a relatively simple Google Docs worksheet apparently resulted in some cell references disappearing from formulas. Zoho Sheet repeatedly posted an error message that a "script" in the relatively simple test worksheet wouldn't stop running.

Picking a Winner:

Zoho Sheet clearly has the best feature set -- at least for the moment -- and its integration of chat and publish functions shows why Web-based applications will be so important.

Presentations

If you use presentation apps to customize existing stock presentations for specific audiences by rearranging slides and changing text, then Web-based apps may serve your needs nicely. But if you're the Cecil B. DeMille of PowerPoint -- if your presentations are loaded with reveals and fly-in objects and transitions -- you may find that even ThinkFree, the most full-featured of the lot, is barely adequate.

The presentation apps in the Web-based suites are more limited than the word-processing and spreadsheet applications. ThinkFree Show sticks closely to PowerPoint, but Google Docs and Zoho Show are both missing standard, often-used features like layout grids and slide transitions -- and even, in the case of Google Docs, clip art.

Even ThinkFree has its limitations. It won't do everything PowerPoint does. Among other things, its selections of presentation designs and clip art are limited, and there's no "insert movie" feature.

Another limitation is size -- all three Web-based suites limit the size of presentations you can upload from your computer to 10MB. That's obviously a number chosen to hold down file transfer times, because presentations -- especially if they include video or many photographs -- can be much larger.

Fortunately, once your presentation is uploaded, it can grow to whatever the limits of your storage space are. If you customize your presentations by combining slides from several sources, then you'll want to use Google Docs or ThinkFree: They let you cut and paste slides between presentations; Zoho doesn't.

However, Zoho compensates for some of its shortcomings by offering the widest variety of presentation design templates (about 50), and the most useful clip art and symbol collections. ThinkFree includes 33 presentation designs, and Google Docs only has 15.

Google Docs, for its part, does one trick the others don't -- you can embed a YouTube video in a slide. Given that just about any video is, or can be, available on YouTube, that can be very useful. (You don't suppose it has anything to do with the fact that Google owns YouTube, do you?)

Google Docs has another feature, in some ways more impressive, that it shares with Zoho Show: you can invite others via e-mail to watch the presentation while you control it. It's an easy way to support a conference call with visuals -- put up the agenda and other information as a quick presentation, and send an invitation to the attendees as a group. When they click on a link, they'll join a real-time presentation that you can control.

Zoho improves on this, although the process is more complicated: You can view the speaker notes while hiding them from your audience. And thanks to the range of Zoho's online applications, you can switch to Zoho Meeting from within the presentation and share your desktop with the attendees. (Unsharing the desktop and getting back into controlling the presentation, though, can be a challenge.)

Picking a Winner:

Zoho Show's wide variety of templates and clip art makes it the most useful of the three apps, and its integration with Zoho Meeting gives you a new presentation tool you haven't had before.

Leveraging the Web

All three suites take interesting advantage of the fact that they are Web-based, but we're still in the learning-to-crawl stage.

The creators of Google Docs, ThinkFree and Zoho have obviously put a lot of thought into how a productivity suite might leverage the power of the Web. In Google's case, that means tying Docs to other Google applications -- which sometimes works better in theory than it does in practice. You can schedule an "event" around a Google Docs presentation by inviting viewers and putting an entry into your Google Calendar, but when the appointed hour comes, all you get is a pop-up reminder. Why couldn't Google Docs open to the presentation, start it, and set you as the presenter? Or at least put a link to the presentation into the pop-up?

Integration with e-mail seems an obvious plus for a Web-based app, but none of the suites do much with it. Zoho's Share dialog gives you the option of receiving an update message when the document is edited by a collaborator, and Google Docs does something similar, but not consistently -- you can subscribe to an RSS feed within Google Docs documents that's supposed to display an update when collaborators make edits, but for spreadsheets you get an e-mail, not an RSS option.

Google Docs allows you to select contacts to share documents with by opening your Gmail contacts list. However, neither Zoho nor ThinkFree knows about your e-mail contacts, which seems curious, given how common it is for other Web-based apps like social-networking sites to prompt you for your e-mail account information and suck in all your contacts.

Cross-platform performance is another area that needs development. One of the advantages of using Web-based applications and file storage is that you can work on a variety of platforms from a variety of locations. All three suites ran more or less well in a Firefox 2.0 browser on Windows, Mac and Linux. They even worked on a minimally configured Linux-based Asus Eee.

But even Google Docs, which offered the most responsive performance of the suites, hit a user interface wall with the Eee's 800- by 480-pixel screen: The dialog box for creating a chart in a spreadsheet was too big for the screen, so the "OK" button couldn't be clicked. This kind of problem is endemic to apps on the increasingly popular breed of ultramobile PCs, and they need careful attention from developers.

Picking a Winner:

Of the three suites, Google Docs provides the most Internet connectivity, even though, as noted, there's still a long way to go here. Google's generally good support for mobile devices also contributes to the potential of the Web applications platform Google is putting together.

Conclusion

Web-based productivity suites have made a transition. While at first they simply imitated desktop applications in a Web browser, the current versions add features that begin to integrate the social computing features of the Web. At the same time, they've begun to grow away from simply imitating Microsoft Office to developing personalities of their own.

They share common ingredients, but the recipes vary. Google Docs begins with Google's deep understanding of Web application development and yields apps that are consistently usable, if not always feature-rich. ThinkFree comes from the opposite direction: It began by working hard to replicate the Office user experience in a browser and now needs to focus on Web-enabling the apps. Zoho seems to have the best understanding of the value the Web adds to productivity apps, but Zoho applications don't always match the usability of Google's.

Taken together, the suites prove that Web-based productivity is no longer a contradiction in terms. They have gotten good enough not only to be useful on their own, but also to give an indication of some of the new uses they will make possible as they continue to grow into the Web.

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