If you’re running any kind of organization, a suite of office
software is essential — at the very least, you need a fairly good
word-processing program, a spreadsheet application, and some sort of
presentation software. Feature-rich Microsoft Office has made that
particular market its own for at least the past decade, but now a few
strong alternatives are fast gaining ground on the giant.
It’s largely a matter of money, although convenience and collaboration also weigh in when it comes to the web-based applications. For most of us, however, price tag is frankly a major consideration.
MS Office offers just about every function and feature you might
imagine, and for the most part works well — although user reaction was
strongly divided when the familiar menu system was replaced with a
task-based “ribbon bar” in 2007, and there are those who are opposed to
all things Microsoft on principle — but it carries a hefty price tag
that can tax the small organization’s budget, just as its rather heavy
code can put a strain on the memory of older computers. And if you move
between computers in the course of your work, a legal copy of the
software will need to be installed and maintained on each local
machine. That can add up to a considerable expense.
The alternative applications that were once just an upstart David to
the Microsoft Goliath — “good enough” for casual home use, perhaps —
have grown up into solid, hard-working office software able to give the
traditional office software a run for its money. And the good news for
budget-conscious nonprofits? The best of these alternative office
suites are very low cost, or free.
OpenOffice.org: Free Open-Source Desktop Office Software
is a free, open-source alternative to the MS Office suite and offers
virtually the same essential features. Five modules make up the suite —
Writer (word processing), Calc (spreadsheets), Impress (presentations),
Draw (graphics), and Base (databases). OpenOffice.org comes in many
languages, can be installed on as many computers as you want without
charge, and plays well with other common office software so you won’t
lose those documents created in another office program. And, yes, it’s
available for the Mac, Linux, and Solaris platforms as well as for PCs
But still, OpenOffice.org is desktop software: if you want to use it, it's got to be installed on the computer you're working on.
And the question of convenience is no small consideration — especially where
you want to allow other people to collaborate with you on producing a
document, spreadsheet, or presentation. Or when you need to access your
documents when you’re away from your own computer. Or when you want to
integrate your online and offline activities. Or when your own computer suddenly gives up the ghost, but you've got to be able to access your documents and somehow keep on working while you get it fixed or replaced...
And it’s there, in the
areas of collaboration, integration, and portability, that the web-based
applications have an edge on conventional desktop software.
Top 3 Free Web-Based Office Suites
There are any number of good smaller web-based application out there
— and we’ve highlighted a few stand-alone web apps from time to time,
as we’ll continue to do in the future. Sometimes, for a specific task,
one easy-to-learn and easy-to-use web-based tool is simply the most
efficient way to handle your workload. But when it comes to “one stop
shopping” for a full-featured suite of office software, realistically,
there are three main contenders: Google Docs, ThinkFree, and Zoho.
David DeJean (ComputerWorld.com) writes:
While Google Docs, ThinkFree and Zoho vary in the breadth of the
applications they offer, their features and their usability, they are
all capable of doing real, useful work. They do what you expect of
productivity apps — create documents, spreadsheets and presentations —
in sophisticated fashion.
Then they take advantage of the fact that they are Web-based to
add another level of productivity. In various ways, they incorporate
“presence” features that let you enable collaboration with others from
within the apps themselves — you can e-mail files, share access to
files (either read-only or read/write) with individual contacts or
groups, or publish files (to a blog, a Web page, or a select group of
All three of these Web-based suites are free, and an account
includes storage for your documents (ThinkFree and Zoho offer 1GB;
Google doesn’t specify a size limit, but it lets you store up to 5,000
documents and 5,000 images online).
And because you work in a Web browser, they’re cross-platform applications by default…
DeJean’s detail-for-detail comparison of Google Docs vs. ThinkFree vs. Zoho
is a fairly lengthy article but reading it should save you a good deal
of time in the long run. With a good sense of what each of the “three
contenders” has to offer, you’ll be that much closer to deciding which
web-based office suite might best meet the needs of your organization.
Regular readers of the Wild Apricot blog will recall that from time to time we’ve looked at various features and capabilities of both Google Docs
and Zoho's suite, but we haven’t yet talked about Thinkfree.
As announced just this week, you can try out Thinkfree Online by using your Google login,
without having to set up a separate Thinkfree account. Convenient, indeed. Note, however, that you
will be asked to grant access to your Google contacts in the process of logging in this way.
I’m sure that the purpose of this is probably just to enable you to
conveniently invite your contacts to share documents via Thinkfree
Online, should you want to — but in this age of heightened privacy
concerns, it would be reassuring if we could see all that spelled out somewhere. Note
too that, according to Thinkfree’s instructional video, if you grant access and later decide to revoke it “will prevent you accessing your account for a period of one month.”
Don’t let that put you off, necessarily! Thinkfree has a great deal
to recommend it, especially as it’s designed to emulate Microsoft
Office 2003 as closely as possible, so its interface will immediately
look and feel familiar to MS Office users. My own recommendation at this point
would be to skip the easy Google login option, and just go ahead and
set up a Thinkfree Online account if you want to try it out. The desktop
version, Thinkfree Office, costs about $50 — and other related products, including the
handy file synchronization manager, also carry a modest price tag — but the web-based version is free.
If you’re already a Thinkfree user, or a Google Docs or Zoho fan…
what was it that made you choose one product over the others? Or is there
another alternative office suite that you’d like to see added to this
shortlist? Please, share your thoughts in the comments!