Is Microsoft Office Doomed?

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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