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.
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.
This story, "Online Office Apps: Google Docs vs. ThinkFree vs. Zoho" was originally published by Computerworld.