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Google and Zoho Web-Based Tools Face Off Against Microsoft Office

Features

 

By Tom Mighell

Will new online productivity tools let lawyers kiss Microsoft good-bye? Here's a look at the pros and cons of how some major Web-based programs currently stack up against the ubiquitous Microsoft Office.

 

Of all the tools in a lawyer's technology arsenal, perhaps none is used more than the "office suite"—the all-in-one package that includes your word processor, calendar, spreadsheet creator, presentation designer and e-mail program. For years, the Microsoft Office suite has reigned supreme, arguably providing the most complete set of tools available. Of course, Corel has many supporters of its WordPerfect Suite, and those who prefer open source software swear by the OpenOffice multiplatform applications. In terms of market share, however, most lawyers and firms use MS Office programs as their primary productivity tools.

Will Microsoft ever lose its hold on us? Perhaps. With the advent of Web 2.0 technologies in the past few years, new Internet tools offer many of the same features as MS Office and at greatly reduced cost. Most of them, in fact, are free. These tools work much like desktop applications—but all within the confines of your Web browser. Google received the most buzz this past year with its Google Docs and Spreadsheets, Google Calendar and GMail tools. The lesser-known but probably better-integrated Zoho Suite offers the same tools and more, free to individuals and at reasonable prices to groups.

The combination of these tools into a "suite"-type package demonstrates a clear intent by Google and Zoho to do battle with Microsoft. Does this mean the death of MS Office? Or, to the more immediate question, should small firm lawyers consider Google and Zoho viable options when choosing productivity applications? Let's take a look at both of these new competitors, and whether lawyers should move their offices online.

Word Processing and Document Sharing

To begin, how do Google's and Zoho's word processing tools compare to their MS Word counterpart? Both Google Docs and Zoho Writer are available as stand-alone products and offer reasonably full-featured word processing capabilities. Google Docs has a lean, spare look to it, but it contains most of the basic formatting options available in Word, including these:

· 18 different fonts in up to seven point sizes
· Highlighting and font coloring
· Bulleted and numbered lists
· Tabs and indenting
· Line spacing options
· Superscript, subscript and strikethrough functions
· The ability to insert images, tables, Web links, comments, bookmarks and special characters

These features are sufficient for most legal drafting. However, those who wish to add page numbers, footnotes or endnotes, a table of contents or an index may find themselves at a loss. Fortunately, you can save your Google document in different formats—including Word, RTF, PDF, HTML and OpenOffice. Unfortunately, Google Docs lacks a fully realized text search and Find and Replace feature (although you can currently perform a Replace All on an experimental basis). A further negative is the limit to the number of documents you can save. At present, it is only 1,000 (and 100 for spreadsheets).

Zoho Writer offers all the features of Google Docs, plus a few more—and it looks more like the familiar word processor interface. In addition, you can segregate documents into different categories: My Documents, Templates, Shared Documents and Public Documents. Zoho's free product provides 1GB of space for your documents, with additional space available for a fee.

On the file-sharing side, both Google and Zoho beat Microsoft in the ability to collaborate on documents with other users, even in real-time. In Google Docs, just click on the Collaborate tab and send a link to the document to as many people as you want. Each user can be given full or read-only access, depending on that user's editing privileges. To see edits made by other users, simply click on the Revisions tab and select the revision (or revisions) you want to compare. You can even restore a document to a prior revision.

And Zoho makes it even easier to work with MS Word with its recently introduced plug-in, which lets a user create a document in Word, or Excel, then export it directly to Zoho so other participants can collaborate on it. Plus, both Zoho and Google also have a Publish feature, which sends your document directly to a Web site or blog, without your needing to know about HTML or other Web software.

Calendar Capabilities

Next up are the calendar apps. When it comes to easy usability, the Google Calendar fits the bill. Just click on a date, type "Meeting with Client Jones at 2:00 p.m.," and your appointment is made. If the meeting changes to the next day, just drag the appointment from one day to the next. You can also have multiple calendars on the same page, and the interface color-codes your work, holiday and personal calendars. Like other calendar applications, Google comes with different types of views, too—Day, Week, Month, Next 4 Days and Agenda. One of its better features, though, is the ability to receive notification by e-mail or SMS text message for event reminders, your daily agenda and invitations from others. Another nice feature is that you can access your online calendar from your mobile phone. The disadvantage to the Google Calendar is that you cannot sync it with other calendar programs, although you can import any calendar that utilizes the iCal or .cvs format.

The Zoho Calendar is not available as a stand-alone product. To use it, you must register for the Zoho Virtual Office Suite (which we'll discuss in a later section). Zoho's Calendar is similar to Google's, although perhaps not as easy to use. However, Zoho does provide a task list, as well as the ability to export your calendar to other applications in .ICS format.

Spreadsheet and Presentation Tools

Google Spreadsheets and Zoho Sheet are not as full-featured as Excel, but they are certainly adequate for a lawyer's expected use. Both offer basic spreadsheet functions, as well as more advanced formulas. They differ, though, in a couple of respects. For one, Google does not allow the creation of charts, while Zoho provides four basic chart templates. Also, Google permits real-time collaborative editing, while Zoho does not. Both tools limit the number of sheets per file—Google to 20, and Zoho to 101.

For its presentation tool, Zoho offers Zoho Show, which lets users create, edit, publish and show presentations remotely. But Zoho—or any other Web-based application, for that matter— cannot match the features offered by PowerPoint, which is simply, well, too powerful. Perhaps Google understands this because, at least as of this writing, it has no presentation application.

E-Mail

GMail was one of Google's first productivity tools, and it continues to be the most popular. All users receive at least 2.8GB of mail storage, if not more. GMail works a bit differently from other e-mail programs because Google believes you should be able to see all of your e-mail at one time. In other words, Google does not believe in folders, so you cannot segregate your messages by case or topic. Instead, you apply "labels" to your "conversations" and then view them by label. Opening multiple e-mail messages at once is impossible, as is the ability to right-click on anything. Although GMail does provide the ability to filter messages, it is nowhere near as powerful as the rules provided by programs like Outlook. On the positive side, GMail is very quick, it is accessible on your mobile phone, and your mail messages are very easy to search—after all, it's Google.

Zoho's E-Mail component, like its Calendar, is offered only through the Zoho Virtual Office Suite. But Zoho E-mail offers many more options than GMail. In addition to being able to organize your e-mail by folders, you can save an e-mail as a task, calendar item, note, document or other item—just like in Outlook.

The "Suite" Spot

One obvious advantage of MS Office is the interoperability between all of its components. In fact, the new Office 2007 provides even tighter integration of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook than did previous releases. Unfortunately, the "Google Office" is not a reality yet—although some of the tools communicate with each other, they are still pretty much separate entities. Zoho Virtual Office, in contrast, offers a terrific grouping of its tools in a suite that comes close to matching that of MS Office.

With Zoho Virtual Office, you get e-mail, calendaring, Web documents and sharing, tasks and reports, contacts, notes, bookmarks, instant messaging, announcements and much more. Zoho Virtual Office comes in two flavors: an on-demand service (hosted by Zoho) that's free to individuals and $9.95 per month for each additional user, and an on-premise version (that can be hosted on your own server) that's free for the first 10 users, and $295 per year for up to 25 users. If you're looking for the complete Office experience in an online tool, Zoho is currently the closest you can get.

The Verdict Is In … For Now

Although both Google and Zoho offer promising online applications that lawyers can use in their practices, neither currently has the feature set to challenge Microsoft. Regardless of the features, though, the biggest drawback is that neither service will allow you to back up all your files at once—or store copies at another location—unless you download the documents directly to your computer. Take note, however, that early in 2007 both Omnidrive and Box.netannounced the capability to store  Zoho documents so that Zoho users could edit directly from their storage accounts, which should lead to an improvement in this area for Zoho. Although the truth is that having your documents permanently reside on someone else's server, as these services require, is almost never a good idea for a lawyer. In December 2006 GMail suffered two separate incidents that illustrate this point.

First, 50 to 60 GMail users reported that their e-mail was completely deleted, with no possibility of recovery. In an even more serious breach, hackers learned how to steal GMail user contact lists. Although Google promptly resolved these issues, they demonstrate the fact that online storage of your legal files and confidential client information is just not ready for prime time.

This is not to say you shouldn't use these services. Google and Zoho offer some great features, perhaps the greatest being the ability to collaborate on documents in real-time, without having to exchange documents back and forth via e-mail. Soon these services will improve to the point that they provide a real threat to Microsoft. At that point, lawyers may face a tougher decision.

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