Web Office Suite: best of breed products

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.

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


There 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


This 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


This 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


Like 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


37Signal'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


There 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.