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Technology

Nothing.But.Net

By Rick Klau

In smaller firms, productivity software is often one of the more costly technology expenditures. Fortunately, there are now browser-based options that enhance efficiency for a price you can justify.

Back when the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust case against Microsoft was chugging along, I scoffed at Microsoft opponents who suggested that browsers and Java were early harbingers of an online operating system, a day when everything you could do in Microsoft Office you could do on the Internet. I'll spare myself the embarrassment of relating just how dismissive of this idea I was. Suffice it to say, I found it impossible that anyone would ever be able to use an online office suite. I was wrong.

Today, a plethora of robust online offerings exist that let you operate entirely inside of a browser. While claims of Microsoft Office killers are likely overblown for the time being, the collaborative power inherent in these browser-based applications can no longer be ignored. Especially for smaller offices looking for ways to save money on productivity software (which sometimes represents more than 50 percent of the cost of the computer on which the software runs), these online options are worth a look.

Office Suites: The Basics

Let's review the components of today's office suites. For their building blocks, they have some key points in common, including e-mail, calendar, word processing, spreadsheet and file-sharing applications. In Microsoft Office these components are Outlook (for both e-mail and calendar functions), Word, Excel, PowerPoint and SharePoint.

To complement these applications, larger firms often have a groupware server that provides rich document sharing and collaboration capabilities for the people in the firm. Microsoft's Exchange and SharePoint servers, for example, provide group productivity enhancements to the core Office suite.

But for smaller firms, it can be hard to justify the expense, in both software and hardware, to acquire the full breadth of functionality. Frequently, they simply get by without it. Today, however, that trade-off between cost and functionality is no longer necessary because of browser-based programs like the following.

Zimbra: An All-in-One Suite

Firms looking for a complete office suite online ought to take a look at Zimbra . It's by far the most fully featured Web-based office suite I've seen. Zimbra offers a variety of editions, with modest per-user pricing ranging from $25 per year up to $35 per year. (Discounts may apply.)

The suite includes e-mail (both a rich Web-based interface and an optional Microsoft Outlook connector) as well as calendar capabilities and document creation and sharing tools (similar to wikis). It also provides enterprise-wide antivirus protection. In addition, Zimbra appears to be an outstanding option for firms looking for group scheduling and resource scheduling, such as meeting rooms, equipment reservations and the like—something that in the past was primarily the domain of the far more expensive Exchange server and its equivalents.

While I've not used the application in depth, Zimbra's growth—to more than 4 million end-users—is impressive in such a crowded space. A free demo is available on the Web site, as is an open source version that you can install on your own (Linux) server. Functionality like this for a 20-person office used to be available for $20,000 or more. That it's now available for less than $1,000 for a supported version (and free for no support) is remarkable.

Google Apps: Build-Your-Own Solutions

For firms that already have some pieces of the puzzle figured out, there are a wealth of solutions out there to address narrower needs. Google, perhaps not surprisingly, is taking a lead in the field. Between applications it has built in-house and companies it has acquired, Google has a number of interesting applications for use online.

One is Google Docs & Spreadsheets, in which the company has integrated Google Spreadsheets with the word processor formerly known as Writely. (Google acquired Writely earlier this year.) In my company, we've had a good experience with the spreadsheet component. We often share a fair amount of structured info—simple spreadsheets, for the most part—and what was before a nightmare of version tracking became a painless, automatic and elegant solution with Google Spreadsheets.

The setup is simple: You create a new spreadsheet and a familiar-looking interface opens in your browser. But what's different is that people you've chosen to share the spreadsheet with can have the same spreadsheet open in their browser. From there, when you update a cell in the spreadsheet on your computer, it immediately updates in everyone else's browser.

The change in group productivity when such a simple mechanism is implemented is dramatic. Gone are the days of linear updates (as in, you update it, attach the spreadsheet and forward it to your team; the next person adds their changes and replies to all; repeat as necessary). Now everyone can see the changes in real-time. Additional features that are nice include the ability to export a Google spreadsheet as an Excel, CSV or Open Office file (so you can view the contents locally on your computer when offline), as well as the ability to designate certain people as "collaborators" (people who can edit the document) versus "viewers" (people who can view but not modify the document).

Google Docs, the word processing application, essentially works in the same way. You can upload existing documents from other applications or create new files from scratch and then have a group of people collaborate on the documents through their browsers. The program keeps a version history and, in a neat twist, a version of the document can be posted to most popular Weblog applications. For group blogs (internally focused or external ones), this is a great way to collaborate on the drafting of a blog entry and then quickly publish the finished results to a static Web site.

Although they're less integrated, Google also offers Gmail (for e-mail) and Google Calendar. Gmail operates well in a stand-alone environment, but it is far less fully featured than something like Zimbra for enterprise e-mail. Calendar, on the other hand, does have some nice group sharing capabilities. Side-by-side calendar viewing, for example, makes it particularly easy to compare schedules and see who's free at what times.

The Enterprise Wiki Option

A different take on the enterprise office suite is to shift the focus away from the individual contributor (as in e-mail and calendaring) and instead focus on the work product. Socialtext is one company that has introduced the concept of a hybrid of blogs and wikis that lets groups inside an organization work together. (Disclaimer: I used to run business development for Socialtext.) With this kind of hybrid, teams can create documents (text, mixed media and spreadsheets) together, establish a shared e-mail repository, share files securely, and integrate with instant messenger applications to facilitate instantaneous group communication.

Socialtext workspaces are either Web-based or installed inside a company's firewall. Teams then access the workspaces through their browsers and can receive notifications of updates to the workspaces via e-mail or RSS. The outcome is that the concept of an organizational intranet (a loosely defined collection of tools enabling file sharing, private Web pages and group discussions) now gives way to a richer set of tools, designed to encourage contribution and an ongoing refinement of those contributions by an expanding group of contributors.

In other words, gone are the traditional "Office tools" like a word processor and a stand-alone spreadsheet; in their place are more dynamic systems that try to encourage true collaboration instead of mere creation.

Change Is Inevitable

It's interesting to note that when I composed this column, I didn't use an online tool. The reason is probably applicable to many of you, too. A fair amount of the content I create is for consumption, not collaboration—so the offline, stand-alone apps that are part of my Office suite are quite sufficient. Plus, many of these apps are finding new life as they embed Internet functionality into their systems. Consider the ability to query Web sites from within Excel, for instance. (A popular example is a spreadsheet that rebuilds automatically based on stock prices.)

But as more people get comfortable using their browser for more than browsing, it's clear that the office suites of the future are transitioning toward a browser-based environment. I was wrong seven years ago to think it would never happen. Now, what will the office suite of 2014 look like?

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