Web Office Suite: best of breed products

Web Office Suite: best of breed products

Summary: There's been lots of talk recently about the Web Office - and who is building it. Microsoft released Office Live in beta last week, but it was never going to be a fully functional Office suite like MS Office is.

TOPICS: Microsoft

There's been lots of talk recently about the Web Office - and who is building it. Microsoft released Office Live in beta last week, but it was never going to be a fully functional Office suite like MS Office is. Google has been on peoples minds as the bigco most likely to come out with a strong Office Suite for the Web - and we're seeing hints that it may yet come true. Last week they announced a hosted email service for organizations and there are signs of an impending Google Calendar product.

But let's take a step back The best Web Office products of 2006 and consider what will be the primary elements of an Office Suite for the Web -- and who among the big or small companies is currently providing the best examples. Here I review some of the contenders for collaborative Office tools. Indeed a number of the products I mention below may well be acquisition targets this year for Microsoft, Google, or Yahoo.

Web Email

Best of breed: Gmail

gmail.gifThere are various companies offering hosted email for businesses - Webmail.us and Sproutit.com are two that spring to mind. But for me, the clear innovator and leader in the web email department was and still is Google's Gmail. It was released as a beta on 1 April 2004 and I've been using it as my main email client since September 2004. 

Gmail is to my mind the first email system that was built purely for the Web. There were earlier web email systems, of course - Hotmail and Oddpost for example. But unlike those earlier services, Gmail is in the same class of functionality as Microsoft's desktop client Outlook. That plus Gmail's Web-native features combine to make it a killer app. By web-native I mean the ability to check your email from multiple computers, a Web-like search, the 'conversation view' which I love, and tagging/labels. 

Now that chat and IM functions are being added to Gmail - and hosting too - Google is building out their web email service very nicely. It'll make an excellent cornerstone for a Web Office Suite.

Word Processing

Best of breed: Writely

writely.pngThis is probably the most crowded niche for Web Office products, but Writely was the first such product to gain popularity and it still seems to hold the edge over its competitors. Writely's features include import and export into Word format, embedded images, a WYSIWYG editor, drag and drop functionality, sharing documents, tagging, convert to PDF. The Writely team continues to roll out improvements.

I've also used 37Signal's Writeboard and have been happy with that. Some of the others worth considering are Rallypoint, JotSpot Live, Zoho Writer.


Best of breed: NumSum, iRows

numsum_irows2.pngThis category seems wide open right now, with no clear market leader. Perhaps this is because the functionality of online spreadsheets isn't quite there - Excel can rest easy for now. NumSum was an early "social spreadsheet" service. When it first came out it was hamstrung by the spreadsheets not being shareable. However I'm happy to see that this feature has since been added, enabling multiple users to edit a spreadsheet. iRows is a brand new product that offers a similar feature set to NumSum, including the ability to collaborate on a spreadsheet. A couple of people prefer iRows already - Brian Benzinger has a great review of it.

Other services: JotSpot Tracker combines spreadsheets with wikis and TrimSpreadsheet is a lightweight open-source JavaScript spreadsheet engine.


Best of breed: 30 Boxes, CalendarHub

30boxes_chub.pngLike word processing, online calendars is a category with a lot of competing services. TechCrunch recently listed a bunch of them:

To be honest, I don't know much about these services - believe it or not I still use a paper notebook to organize my schedule! But 30 Boxes has been getting rave reviews, even though it's still in non-public beta. For example Thomas Hawk called it "the best calendar ever" and Stowe Boyd liked it too. As for an existing product, CalendarHub has a great set of features and was Dion Hinchcliffe's choice for best online calendar of 2005. 

Presentations (Powerpoint)

Best of breed: ? up for grabs

This is a category that has received virtually no attention at all, so it is hard to find many examples of potential Powerpoint usurpers. There is no shortage of Web presentation formats though. For example S5 is described as "A Simple Standards-Based Slide Show System". It's based on XHTML, CSS, and JavaScript. But it's not a product. Similarly, SlideML is an XML format for Slideshows. 

Given the apparent lack of 'online powerpoint' products, there is an opportunity here for a Web 2.0 company to swoop in and create a slides/presentation service.

Project Management

Best of breed: Basecamp

basecamp-logo-small.gif37Signal's Basecamp continues to set the pace. It features message boards, to-do lists, simple scheduling, collaborative writing, and file sharing. It garners a lot of buzz from Web people, for example uber-designer Jeffrey Zeldman once said that "Basecamp makes me feel calm, relaxed, and focused". 


Best of breed: Zimbra

zimbra.pngThere are some companies that are already trying to market a Web Office Suite, or as near to one as a small company can get. 

Zimbra was one of the hits of the Web 2.0 Conference in October last year. It's an open source server and client system for enterprise messaging and collaboration. The product itself is called the Zimbra Collaboration Suite - which provides support for email, contacts, and group calendaring. It has open APIs and a lot of potential for mashups. I was very impressed when I saw it and even though it may not be a full Office suite, it covers the communications part of one very well. Dan Farber profiled Zimbra last September.

Also the nicely named gOffice offers a mini-suite of word processing, desktop publishing, presentations and spreadsheets. Thinkfree has much to recommend it too and Goowy is a nice Flash-based alternative.

The danger with companies that offer a Office Suite though is that a Microsoft or a Google will eventually come and eat their lunch. So perhaps it is better to focus on one type of product, like Writely or NumSum do, and get it absolutely right. But then I like how Zimbra is going about it, because they are doing something quite different than a bigco would ever do.


Those are the main Office tools, but there are of course other office functions that will probably be in a Web Office suite. I'm assuming To Do lists (and indeed calendaring) will be integrated with web email systems in due course - as happened with MS Outlook. And there are services like online storage and webpage editing which will no doubt be part of a Web Office Suite. I'll address those things and more in future posts.

Updates: I've added iRows to the best of breed for spreadsheets, due to favorable reviews elsewhere. Also added Goowy to the list of suites. 

Topic: Microsoft

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Calendar

    I can see some of the benefits of CalendarHub, but 30Boxes has got to me the most overrated product in history. I have no idea why it continues to be hyped by so many of the "in the know" Web 2.0 folks.
    • airset

      I've tried several online calendars since September of last year, including Planzo, 30boxes, CalendarHub. At the moment, Airset seems to be the one with the most functions, very flexible, very stable, great support, and free. The only thing feature that Google has over Airset is the ability to click and drag an event to another date.

      I hope that this brief note helps.
      What's All This Then
      • English only

        Beware that, despite of good features and speedy support, Airset is only suitable for English (and Latin) users - any accented char is translated into ?.
        They're working into that but for non-anglophones (or Roman Catholic priests) it's unfortunately useless for now.
  • If these are the best...

    Then the rest must really suck.
    • Suites _ Refer to the wiki section for online office suites

  • Network Neighborhood

    You will also need access to your computers and MS shares at the office over the web without a client application.

    http://www.sslbridge.com provides this capability
  • "Best of breed" is all relative

    The question is, will users want to use these Web-based applications for their everyday use? I have played around with some of the apps/sites on the list and, while they're interesting, I'd never consider using them on a regular basis unless I had to. While the technorati may think Ajax is the most exciting thing since sliced bread, I think it's way overplayed. There's nothing like the peformance and feature richness of a full rich client application on Windows or MacOS.

    PS. Try using these apps/sites when you're not connected to the Web...like when you're flying to a meeting.
  • Gmail in same class as desktop Outlook?


    Gmail is to my mind the first email system that was built purely for the Web. There were earlier web email systems, of course - Hotmail and Oddpost for example. But unlike those earlier services, Gmail is in the same class of functionality as Microsoft's desktop client Outlook.

    I'm sorry but this is a silly thing to say. Gmail is over-rated. It's nice compared to msot/all Web-based email systems but it doesn't hold a candle to Outlook or numerous other desktop applications. It lacks features, lacks performance and, by the way, snoopes on users.

    I'll also posit that Gmail isn't really flying with users either. I don't know if Google publicizes the number of users or user retention but I'd bet that their rates of retention aren't great. Next time you're in a room full of people ask this: How many of you have used Gmail? A lot of people will raise their hands. Then ask: How many of you still use Gmail? Most will drop their hands.
    • true

      I don't think even Outlook is the top of its class. I've pretty much stuck to Pegasus Mail because its filtering capabilities outclass pretty much everything, and its HTML reader was designed from scratch to be secure (it purposely can't read JavaScript or other programming languages that might be abused).

      What you say about GMail is [i]very[/i] true. I have a gmail account, just because a friend sent me an invite - but I never use it.
    • I agree to a point

      The number of people I encounter who have Gmail addresses keeps growing. I wonder if this is partly due to how easy it is to setup POP/SMTP access with it. Once I realized how good their SPAM filtering is (compared to my ISP and my mail host provider) I found myself using it more and more. But yes, I much prefer to use a standard desktop mail app than webmail. Gmail at least offers free POP client support with an outstanding webmail option - the best of both worlds I think.
    • WRONG.

      As a matter of fact, our entire organization has standardized on Gmail, and we have influenced other organizations to do the same.

      Outlook has a ton of non-email organization features, all of which work poorly. If you want purely outstanding e-mail, Gmail is the answer.

      And, quite frankly, we're also jumping on the Google Calendar bandwagon.

      I'm sure in your little geek universe your little friends have chosen to ignore this great suite of services, but outhere in the real world, we know what's going on.
      • RE: Wrong

        "I'm sure in your little geek universe your little friends have chosen to ignore this great suite of services, but outhere in the real world, we know what's going on."

        Your 'organization' relies on free services. Yes, the google 'suite' is pretty cool. No, it is not the only solution and definately not one most would recommend for an organization. Ever heard of Exchange?
  • All your eggs

    I agree with the poster on comparing Outlook and Gmail. Outlook provides a full environment for email with calendar, appointments, contact list and even sticky notes.

    I still use Gmail, but as a backup. Any document that's important or I may need Web access to, I'll send to my Gmail account. Also useful as a Web mail address as its spam filter is pretty good. Also (and let's face up to it) the interface just sucks.

    However, I diverge. The real problem with all these apps is putting your eggs in one basket. What 'courageous' person wants to rely on Web based apps for business functions? The key word is RELY. Web access can be interrupted by hardware and software problems on the local machine, network, router, ISP and the Internet itself. WHile I'm prepared to store backups on the web, I'm not prepared to use Web apps that hold my data on the Web and may or may not give me access to it at a critical point.

    The situation is familiar - it's the old days. When a big computer used lots of little terminals and when that computer went down, the whole business stopped. One of the reasons PCs became popular is that they are Personal Computers and they have the ability to store your data on your machine. Now large corporations use massive redundancy on their networks in-house to prevent it all coming down in a heap, but I don't see that on the Internet - especially when you are using a series of connections that you have no power over.

    They'll take away my PC-based apps when they pry them from my cold dead hand ;-)
    • re: All your eggs

      I have to agree with this. Having worked for a small business with flaky Internet connectivity, how can any realistic business person allow this kind of risk. All it would take is an outage when a critical document had to completed and the business could end up folding. This is not a safe way to do business. It wasn't safe when hosted services were pushed in the late 1990s and it still isn't.
    • Point of Failure

      What about those times & places where you have little or no net access? The number of hotspots is increasing but wireless connectivity is far from ubiquitous. Some experiments underway with wireless broadband on aircraft but that?s not there yet. And some public wireless access points leave a lot to be desired. I experienced a paid T-Mobile hotspot at Heathrow Airport late last year that made me long for a dial-up connection. (An acoustic coupler would have worked better.)

      Dependency on broadband access is a point of failure too risky for the real business world today.
    • Data Security

      That's pretty well my position too, the web tools are convenient for anytime, anyplace access. But reliability and data security is still a bit of a concern, even for my personal use. I used Hotmail years ago, but it would not download into Outlook, later there was a workaround for download to Outlook Express, but I eventually stopped using Hotmail.

      Same thing with VOIP, I used both services (VOIP / POTS) concurrently for about 5 years, and only recently switched totally to VOIP, on a reliability trust basis.
  • WikiCalc

    Seeing as he invented the spreadsheet in the first place, I'm a little surprised to not see at least a token mention of Dan Bricklin's <a href="http://www.softwaregarden.com/wkcalpha/">wikiCalc</a>. Here's a link to <a href="http://www.bricklin.com/log/aboutwikicalc01.htm">Bricklin's own description</a> of the project.
  • www.naptaar.com

    There's a good calendaring application at http://www.naptaar.com --- it's fully functional, though still in beta.
  • DOMslides

    I did a CC-licensed slides system much like S5, but less weighty: http://icant.co.uk/domslides/ I wouldn't call it a WEB 2.0 app though, but maybe someone wants to partner and turn it into one?
    • DOMslides is quite nice

      Looking for some simple slideshow functionality today.

      Found DOMslides.

      Very nice.

      -- stan krute