Olongapo SubicBay BatangGapo Newscenter

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Online office suite

OLONGAPO CITY—There’s a mardi gras celebration just outside on Magsaysay Drive tonight and I didn’t want to lug my notebook around, so I ducked into an Internet café and wrote this column using an online word processor.

I immediately thought of using Writely, a cool Web-based word processor that I wrote about last January, but was surprised to find that it had been transformed into Google Docs and Spreadsheets. This isn’t exactly the catchiest of names, but at least it leaves little doubt about what the site does.

Does this bring Google a step closer to creating a Google Office to rival Microsoft Office? Could be. But I found out somebody has beaten Google to the punch.

I first learned of Zoho (www.zoho.com) while I was scouting around for an online conference room because I wanted to avoid the vagaries of the Yahoo! or MSN Messener network. Zoho Chat, available free, seemed like a workable alternative.

This week I was surprised to find that Zoho had added a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation program, a calendar, and a whole bunch of other useful applications, all free. In short, they had gone much farther than Google, which bought Writely in March, in creating an online productivity suite.

Like Writely, Zoho uses Ajax—asynchronous JavaScript and XML—to give its Web-based applications the responsiveness of a desktop program. Also like Writely and other Ajax word processors, Zoho Writer works a lot like a stripped-down version of MS Word, and will import and export documents in its DOC format.

Also like Writely, Zoho Writer includes a spell checker. Clicking the spell check button highlights all misspelled or unrecognized words and clicking on those words will bring up a list of Zoho Writer’s suggestions. Very nice.

You can save documents to an online folder or locally on a hard disk. If you save online, a small pop-up window will tell you how many characters and words you’ve saved.

On my wish list: better page formatting tools that let you set the left and right margin of your document, and a better print preview.

Zoho Sheet works much like MS Excel, but since I don’t do a lot of numbers crunching, I can’t really say how well it measures up to Microsoft’s spreadsheet program. Zoho Sheet does simple graphs, but these aren’t half as attractive as those you can create on Excel.

Zoho Show is MS PowerPoint without the bells and whistles. Using Zoho Show, it’s possible to quickly put together a simple slide presentation, but don’t expect sound, animation or even cool transitions. Zoho Show will let you import PowerPoint presentations, but only those that are 5 megabytes (MB) or less. I successfully imported a 395-kilobyte presentation that I had created with Excel, complete with graphic images, but all transitions, including bullet points that would appear one at a time, no longer worked. Feeling a little cocky, I tried importing a 3.9MB presentation next, but I gave up after more than 10 minutes.

Aside from these three mainstays, Zoho also offers Projects (project management), CRM (customer relationship management), Creator (for online databases), Planner (an online organizer) and, of course, Chat. All services except Zoho Project and Zoho CRM are free. It also offers a number of intriguing utilities that I haven’t had time to check out yet, including a Web site monitoring service.

Of course, like most online offerings, Zoho is at best, Office Lite, giving you only the basic features of a full-blown desktop productivity suite. For a lot of people who are on a tight budget, however, that may be enough. And certainly, if you’re on the road without your laptop, Zoho is a good way to bring your work with you, anywhere you’ve got an Internet connection. Like in an Internet café in Olongapo City, where the mardi gras beckons.

Column archives and blog at: http://www.chinwong.com


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