"What are the advantages of having an online Office Suite? I'd say that the disadvantages include: security issues, slow speed, dependance on internet connection, limited features, harder to program, and probably many others. What is the point?"
It's a very good question and in this post I'm going to try to address it.
One of the big thinkers on the Web Office currently is Rod Boothby, The shift to a Web Office will be a gradual one for most businesses - but it will happen... who is a Manager with Ernst & Young's Financial Services Advisory practice. Rod wrote a thought-provoking white paper about Web Office, which he's also converted into HTML form. I read the white paper closely and it's an excellent overview of Web Office, although I don't agree with everything in it.
What is without question is that we both agree that the Read/Write Web is driving a lot of this innovation in office tools. As Rod put it:
"Web Office solutions are going to use this new philosophical approach (that the web should be both readable and writable) to redefine how knowledge workers share information."
That's a key point - that office tools on the Web are about enabling users to more easily share information and collaborate. It's something existing desktop office tools are woefully inadequate in. Ever tried to email a Word document to 10 of your colleagues and then keep track of changes or suggested changes? Most of us have been through that frustrating experience - it ends up as a huge and messy email thread. It's even worse if you try to use Microsoft Word's horrendous version tracking feature (all that crossed out red type makes it very hard to read).
So here's where a Web-based word processing tool would come in handy. Imagine being able to view the latest version of a collaborative Word document, via your browser window. Instead of using emails to discuss the document, it's all done in one place - the URL of your online Word document. All changes are neatly tracked and versioned. Collaboration is happening, because there's a single point of reference on the Web - and it's not email!
Another positive for Web-based office software is that it makes integrating with other web-based software easier, via open Web standards and formats.
But enough about the high-level philosophical theory, I hear some of you say. What are the practical ways that Web Office can appeal to business decision makers? Rod lists some reasons in his white paper why executives need to start thinking about Web Office now. He firstly appeals to their cost management instincts:
"Web Office technology will make partnering and out-sourcing more efficient by creating a platform that can seamlessly support virtual ad-hoc teams. Thus, it will quickly reduce your costs."
He concludes that "Web Office is cheap", which it certainly is compared to those large licensing fees your company is probably paying Microsoft currently! Plus as some commenters on Slashdot noted, deploying office software ONCE on a server is much more efficient than deploying hundreds or thousands of instances on desktops. It's also easier to do upgrades and backups.
Business decision makers are interested in productivity - and Web Office software potentially increases that. As Rod said:
"If you have any competitors using Web Office technology, they are going to have a significant productivity lead over you. Web Office will be as big and important as email, and you wouldn’t imagine running a business today without email."
All of these are sound reasons to gradually move toward the Web Office Suite. Note that I do say gradually. This isn't something I see happening overnight, precisely because of the challenges that some Slashdot commenters pointed out. There are issues of Internet performance and security which need to be addressed. There are also office politics and employment stresses to deal with, because Web-based office software will result in a relative loss of control for IT departments and the decreased admin work may even result in job losses.
The shift from controlled, seemingly more secure IT systems to open, modular Web-based systems is great in theory - but there are many practical and business challenges that prevent this shift happening in businesses in the short term. I expect it to take more than a few years for even early adopter businesses to move to a Web Office.