Work anywhere, do anything

Summary:The ability to work anywhere is a wonderful thing. The one thing students seem to struggle with nowadays is motivation factors and in my honest opinion, I would say because there are too many distractions when you're at university.

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The ability to work anywhere is a wonderful thing. The one thing students seem to struggle with nowadays is motivation factors and in my honest opinion, I would say because there are too many distractions when you're at university. Whether on or off the campus, you still want to see your friends, go for a beer, get up to no good, torment the geeks for a bit (like I'm doing now - Chris Pirillo in all his glory, everybody) - anything except sit down and do your dissertation.

In those rare moments you get a surge of inspiration to get some work done, you usually don't have your laptop or anything to use to get your thoughts out onto a screen. Some would panic, some would try and remote desktop into their computer, some might just email themselves anything they can think of. Some might resort to a Web 2.0 solution like an online office suite.

These online office suites have really been taking off over the last year or so. Google Docs hit the web in late 2006 after an company acquisition, then Office Live Workspace earlier this year, now Acrobat.com kicked off last week - and of course there have been other competing smaller products released here, there and everywhere in between.

I wanted to show you how smoothly online and offline office products are merging, to the point it doesn't really matter which version you are working on.

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It's fair to say that the Microsoft Office and Adobe Acrobat file extensions (.doc, .ppt, .pdf) are widely recognised as the most used, so interoperability with these file types is necessary for an office product to survive - after all, at some point down the line, someone will end up using these file types anyway. All of the products I'll mention here support these types, and will be the key to their success; branching out to your rivals is something you have to do to please the consumer, after all that is one of the ultimate goals.

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Google Docs It started with an acquisition and now one of the most used online office suite. It's designed to be quick, simple, without any major frills or unnecessary features -
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just the basic tools and gadgets for you to get your work done, rather than screw around with. Written in AJAX and predominately Web 2.0 features, it boasts a very "Microsoft look", it has the File, Edit, View bar at the top with all your options in such as, and not limited to, inserting tables, formatting text, inserting a picture from a URL or an upload, and also has basic reviewing tasks such as word-count and a spell checker.

However the one thing that caught me, was the ability to edit the HTML and CSS of the document. The document itself is just "a document" with no real file extension. You essentially have a blank workspace which you can throw things onto it, and only when you have finished can you define what type of file it is. Once you're done, save it to your workspace and when you get back home, you can download it in either a PDF, Word, RTF, plain text, OpenOffice or HTML file. If, however, you want to work on paper, you can print it out from the web as if you were working on an ordinary offline word processor.

Adobe Acrobat.com I think the one thing that sticks out for me is the collaboration. Yes, the word processor ("Buzzword") looks really cool, written entirely in Flash and works like a dream; if you are one who needs aesthetics and a clean, fresh, beautiful and dynamic application with "swooshy" effects, you'll love Buzzword. It has all the features as Google Docs - the ability to export as all the file types mentioned above (including an added XML file type). The menu bar is in a similar style with the Office 2007 "Ribbon" where the menu options are kept hidden and expand when clicked on - take a look:

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The best feature in this online office suite is the group collaboration software. At some point during your university days, you'll have to work with people - and with these people spread out across campus or a city, it makes life difficult. Everyone has access to a computer nowadays, so use it to your advantage.

Presenting ConnectNow - what I would like to describe as the "Live Meeting killer". This is by far, the simplest and easiest way I have found to connect with friends and colleagues and discuss issues regarding a project, a meeting or suchlike, without having to change from my pyjamas - hell, I don't even have to leave my bed. There are two screenshots you need to see to really understand what it is about; the meeting room floor and what it looks like presenting a meeting by sharing your screen (image modified so you can see everything it has to offer).

You can see each other on webcam, you can share your notes with each other, upload files to a group space where you can each download them without hassle, speak over VoIP, write on a virtual whiteboard (which will be great for Windows 7), share your computer screens to show something off, dial into people's physical mobile phones - the most impressive thing is what is glaring in your face - it is written almost entirely in Flash. All you need is the Flash plugin, which most have anyway, and you can begin.

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Edit: I was using this earlier on today, left my computer on and look what I saw when I got back! A little humour and a cute photo, but increased security when you leave your workstation has swayed me that little bit further towards Adobe.

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Microsoft Office Live Workspace This service hasn't expanded much in the short time it has been in beta, but it's certainly making life easier for those who use predominately Microsoft products. The main ability Office Live Workspace has over the others is it bridges the gap between online and offline working spaces with a small plug-in to Microsoft Office 2007. Once you are working offline on a document, you can save it and print it as normally, or you can just upload it to your Office Live Workspace so you can play with it some more when you're not at your desk.

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Once you are back in the online world, you can modify and change things around - maybe share the permissions so a friend can take a look and make changes. Again, this has collaborative elements in which makes it easier sharing and communicating information around, which is something which doesn't come naturally to the native student. Not before doing that, you can save your own "version history", so if someone screws around with it and saves over it, you can always revert back to your copy before beating them with a big heavy book in retaliation.

The one criticism though - it doesn't feel like an Office application - in fact, a Windows Mobile version of Office feels more like a version of Office. Nevertheless, it does its job and seems to work alright, but don't discount it just yet if you aren't a fan because over the months, you can guarantee with more features, it'll be a much better application.

So to recap -

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    Google Docs is open for everyone to use - you need to register or at least have a Google account, but is great for simply "whopping" out a bit of text, maybe with an image or two, and for generally getting something out on-screen quickly for later revision. The word processor is the better feature of Google Docs.
  • Acrobat.com has a really beautiful word processor, but you need to create a new account to use anything there. However the collaboration meeting software is brilliant, it would be mad not to use it, or at least give it a test spin. Online collaboration and meetings over the Internet just got so much easier.
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    Office Live Workspace makes it easier moving online to offline and vice versa. It's not open to everyone yet but you can put yourself on the waiting list. It's easier to track changes, upload and has a very-Microsoft-interface.

Topics: Microsoft, Collaboration, Google, Software

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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