Office killers pack some heat

Cloud-based Google Docs and Zoho, as well as desktop-bound IBM Lotus Symphony and OpenOffice.org, put Microsoft's productivity suite on notice

There are few pieces of software that users touch more often than office productivity suites. The market monster is, of course, Microsoft Office, with the lion's share of all licenses for office productivity tools. But two trends -- open source and cloud computing -- are offering a new generation of Office alternatives that businesses may want to consider.

In many ways, the sheer pervasiveness of Microsoft Office means that it defines the category in terms of the basic functions that are required and the way they're presented. If you want or need to have a different sort of office productivity solution sitting on your desk, then you're going to look at options defined in large part by the ways in which they differ from Microsoft Office.

Both IBM Lotus Symphony and Google Docs take a basic view of the office suite, with word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications front and center. To a certain extent, each can succeed with this approach because each has a set of communication, collaboration, and database applications that exist apart from the personal productivity basics.

OpenOffice and Zoho are much more all-inclusive products, with different emphases based on their different primary audiences. OpenOffice adds a database manager, a drawing tool, and an equation editor to the basic tools to create a suite well matched to academic and research-oriented desktops. Zoho has the largest package of functions, with a planner, a notebook, a wiki, dedicated chat, and an e-mail client added to the personal productivity side, and eight applications, from database to CRM, available in a business applications section.

Google Docs

When you sign up for Google Docs, you're told that you'll be getting a beta product (albeit one that's being --tested-- by an awful lot of people). I applaud Google for its honesty, because Google Docs has the feel of a beta product. It's not that the Web-based applications are unstable; it's more that they seem intentionally limited in scope to ensure their stability. The word processor, for example, has no support for footnotes, a bibliography, or mail merge. The list of available fonts is also kept quite small (in what may, for many users, be an act of compassion).

The word processor (screen image) betrays its Web roots with an offer to allow you to edit the HTML code for the document and create CSS that apply to your work. Aside from that, the basics of today's word processing are there: You can insert tables and graphical elements, count words, correct spelling, and perform essential formatting (so long as you don't go crazy with fonts).

Collaboration is handled through in-line comment balloons, bookmarks within documents, and the ability to share a given document among any number of users with Google accounts. The best news here is that collaborators don't have to share the same browser or even the same computing platform; a far-flung group consisting of Linux, Macintosh, and Windows users can all work together to create a finished document.

Google's spreadsheet is simultaneously the most frustrating and most powerful of the functions available in the suite. It's frustrating because it works so completely differently than a product like Excel. Take, for example, the process for adding a formula to a cell. Rather than editing it within the cell or in a formula bar over the spreadsheet pane, you click on a tab that takes you away from the editing window to a formula window. Once there, you can do many things, but in order to format the results, you have to click back to the edit tab.

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