9 Web-Based Office Productivity Suites

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An experiment from Mozilla, Prism turns any Web page or service into an application on your local desktop.
We've spent most of this article focusing on Webtops that take you to the cloud. Prism Mozilla, on the the other hand, does exactly the reverse and brings the cloud to your desktop. Prism is a Mozilla Labs experiment, available as a stand-alone program or as a Firefox add-on that allows you to create local Web apps on your personal computer's desktop. I tried out Prism by creating local versions of Gmail, Meebo, and Google Docs applications. The applications can be placed as an icon on your desktop or in other locations on your system, depending on your OS. With Prism, your choices of applications are virtually limitless; as such they would work well for Linux or Windows users with empty systems who want to opt for Web apps instead of open-source or commercial software.

I was disappointed with Prism, however, because I'd hoped to create Web apps I could put on a thumb drive and port around to whatever system I happened to be in front of. Unfortunately, at the moment Prism isn't designed to do that, and I don't know of any other services that are. But if Mozilla could figure out a way to have Prism create quick-launch apps of your favorite Web sites and services that you could carry with you, Prism would be a more relevant and usable system than it is right now.

Pros: Fast access to your Web apps without opening a browser; acts and feels like a desktop application.

Cons: Using too many Web apps at once can put a drain on your processing power. Not an entirely practical solution when so many other online services are available.

Try Prism


iCloud is a desktop for the person of leisure with a focus on online videos plus a few basic productivity applications.
Created by Xcerion, iCloud (in public beta) is optimized for Internet Explorer, with a Firefox version currently in alpha. I did most of my tests on Mac using Firefox, but for this Webtop I also hopped over to a Windows machine to give iCloud a try on Internet Explorer.

At first glance, iCloud seems to be tailored to the recreational user, with an application for watching online videos, a network of online discussion groups, and an instant messaging application with support for MSN, AOL, ICQ, and iCloud's own IM protocol. ICloud also has the best full- screen functioning out of all the Webtops I tried, giving you a more authentic desktop feel even though you’re actually working online.

Productivity apps in iCloud are fairly basic: They include presentation software, a to-do list, and personal budget tracking. All word processing is done in Rich Text Format, with a Microsoft Word converter for uploaded '.doc' files. ICloud also has a calendar and contacts manager, and you get your own iCloud e-mail account with IMAP support. No spreadsheet support is currently available.

Pros: Easy to use, responsive software. Good full-screen support.

Cons: Annoying Vista-style widgets take up screen space; productivity suite is limited.

Try iCloud


cmyOS is based on the eyeOS cloud operating system. If you're looking for a bare-bones system that still maintains a reasonable amount of functionality, then cmyOS just might be the Webtop for you. cmyOS has a word-processing app, but no spreadsheet or presentation software. Other applications include a calendar and a contact manager, as well as a limited in-environment Web browser.

Based on eyeOS, cmyOS is a functional, bare-bones Webtop system.
In short, cmyOS works well, but it doesn’t have a lot of features. At the same time, I didn’t run into any of the roadblocks I experienced with G.ho.st. I also felt cmyOS has its priorities for Web apps straight, unlike AirSet, since it focuses on Web publishing instead of a word processor or spreadsheet program.

Pros: Online collaboration; no-nonsense Webtop focused on productivity.

Cons: Limited functionality compared with other Webtops; in-environment browser limited to YouTube, Yahoo Messenger, Google, Facebook, and Flickr. Storage space not specified. No support for spreadsheets or presentations.

Try cmyOS


If you're looking for productivity applications, Astranos leaves a lot to be desired.
Clearly a Mac-inspired creation, Astranos stands for Astra is Not an Operating System, and, boy, they aren't kidding. The bare-bones Webtop features a bizarre mix of an OS X Tiger-style dock mixed with Windows 95 application windows. And what Astranos lacks in style it does not make up for in functionality. The only apps on this Webtop include a notepad and an IM client. Astranos is also a little buggy, displaying cryptic error messages whenever you call up some of its applications.

Pros: Has notepad function, IM client, and 1GB of free storage from Dropboks (no relation to Dropbox).

Cons:Extremely minimal, not much functionality.

Tip: Unless you're a fan of Tetris (one of the games available on Astranos), you might want to steer clear of this Webtop.

Try Astranos (no login required at startup)

My Preferences

Out of all the Webtops I tried, the two standouts were Glide OS and G.ho.st. Both have the largest storage capacities, and they offer a wide variety of applications for work and play. If I had to choose between the two, I would work with Glide OS for now, since it has the fastest response time and the fewest problems. But I also like what I'm seeing from G.ho.st, and even though I found some irritating bugs in the beta version, I think it will be a great service once all the kinks are worked out.

Final Thoughts

For my tests I used a MacBook running Mozilla's Firefox Web browser, and I also tested a few of these services on a Windows machine to see if there were any differences. With the exception of iCloud, which was specifically designed for IE, I found few differences running the Webtops on Windows or on a Mac. This is a good sign since a Web-based system needs to be accessible from whatever operating system you happen to be using.

One of the most bothersome aspects of the Webtops I tested was their tendency for the browser to switch out of the Webtop environment and back to your regular browser. This happened most often when I was operating a Webtop in full screen mode, when there was little reason to escape the Webtop space for the standard browser environment.

Despite that complaint, Webtops are a great way to store files for which you need quick access. More importantly, Webtops can give you a familiar work environment that looks the same whether you’re working at your home computer, or remotely from a borrowed or public computer. They won't be replacing your traditional desktop anytime soon, but Webtops--the ones that run smoothly and that offer a reasonably broad application set--can release you from the hassle of carrying your apps and data around on a laptop wherever you go.

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