Three fantastic online alternatives to Microsoft Office – Part II

In Part 1 of this article we discussed features of three Web-based office productivity suites – Google Docs, ThinkFree, and Zoho.

We outlined key improvements to these three online suites – and asked whether these new capabilities make any or all of them serious contenders to Microsoft Office.

In this second and final section we answer this question, and also tell you which of the three online suites – in our opinion – does the best job – and in what areas.

Picking a winner:

Overall Google Docs wins by a nose over Zoho Writer. Both let you work offline with Gears, and both maintain version histories. Google Docs takes the lead with its leaner, cleaner user interface and unified file management. ThinkFree is a good choice for Microsoft Word fans, but its performance issues keep it in third place.


The quality of the three suites’ spreadsheet apps closely mirrors that of their word processors: All three offer clean user interfaces, good compatibility with Microsoft Excel, and only slight – but important – variations in their feature sets.

Zoho is the spreadsheet features winner.

It will do pivot tables, macros and conditional formatting – three capabilities that mark the current state of the art for spreadsheets. Google Docs does pivot tables via a plug-in.

ThinkFree has promised a new version of its Calc app with pivot tables and macros, but as this was written, it had not yet delivered them.

There is less variation in the user interfaces of the three spreadsheet apps than there is in the word processors, perhaps because they all stick pretty close to Excel. However, there are some differences.
Google Docs

Both Google Docs’ and Zoho Sheet’s user interfaces are clean and consistent with their word processor’s interfaces. ThinkFree Calc’s user interface shows the suite’s devotion to Office Excel in its menus and feature set.

ThinkFree Calc has a weakness that’s also a minor annoyance in its word-processing and presentation apps: Its font rendering is not of the same quality as Google’s and Zoho’s. Large characters can look a little ragged, and blocks of smaller type lack the smoothness and contrast that the other apps show.

It makes the ThinkFree apps look a little retro.

The Google Docs spreadsheet app, like its word processor, offers a limited number of features, but the defaults the designers have chosen are good ones.

The charting function is one example: It works differently from Excel, but the difference allows you to select a multicolumn range for the chart — the first column becomes the labels, and the second furnishes the chart data.

Google Docs gets extra points for its Gadgets, which are plug-ins that let it do fancier things with graphics — you can create org charts or Gantt charts or interactive charts, for example. Other Gadgets let you use graphic objects in charts, or add Google features like Maps and Search.

Google Docs shows you who else is editing the spreadsheet and offers three tabs that let you publish (show the document on a public page), share (allow others to view and/or edit the document) and discuss (have a live chat with other users — which raises the question of why we can’t have this chat function in Google Docs’ word processor, too).

Zoho Sheet does something like this as well, although the user interface is different than that in Zoho Write.

All three spreadsheet apps felt slower than their counterpart word processors. Editing formulas or rearranging the columns of a worksheet at times seemed painfully slow.


Odd things happened occasionally, as well. For example, rearranging the columns in a relatively simple Google Docs worksheet apparently resulted in some cell references disappearing from formulas. Zoho Sheet repeatedly posted an error message that a “script” in the relatively simple test worksheet wouldn’t stop running.

Picking a winner:

Zoho Sheet clearly has the best feature set — at least for the moment – and its integration of chat and publish functions shows why Web-based applications will be so important.


If you use presentation apps to customize existing stock presentations for specific audiences by rearranging slides and changing text, then Web-based apps may serve your needs nicely.

But if you’re the Cecil B. DeMille of PowerPoint — if your presentations are loaded with reveals and fly-in objects and transitions — you may find that even ThinkFree, the most full-featured of the lot, is barely adequate.

The presentation apps in the Web-based suites are more limited than the word-processing and spreadsheet applications. ThinkFree Show sticks closely to PowerPoint, but Google Docs and Zoho Show are both missing standard, often-used features like layout grids and slide transitions — and even, in the case of Google Docs, clip art.

Google Docs

Even ThinkFree has its limitations. It won’t do everything PowerPoint does. Among other things, its selections of presentation designs and clip art are limited, and there’s no “insert movie” feature.

Another limitation is size – all three Web-based suites limit the size of presentations you can upload from your computer to 10MB. That’s obviously a number chosen to hold down file transfer times, because presentations – especially if they include video or many photographs — can be much larger.


Fortunately, once your presentation is uploaded, it can grow to whatever the limits of your storage space are.

If you customize your presentations by combining slides from several sources, then you’ll want to use Google Docs or ThinkFree: They let you cut and paste slides between presentations; Zoho doesn’t.

However, Zoho compensates for some of its shortcomings by offering the widest variety of presentation design templates (about 50), and the most useful clip art and symbol collections. ThinkFree includes 33 presentation designs, and Google Docs only has 15.

Google Docs, for its part, does one trick the others don’t — you can embed a YouTube video in a slide. Given that just about any video is, or can be, available on YouTube, that can be very useful. (You don’t suppose it has anything to do with the fact that Google owns YouTube, do you?)

Google Docs has another feature, in some ways more impressive, that it shares with Zoho Show: you can invite others via e-mail to watch the presentation while you control it.

It’s an easy way to support a conference call with visuals – put up the agenda and other information as a quick presentation, and send an invitation to the attendees as a group. When they click on a link, they’ll join a real-time presentation that you can control.


Zoho improves on this, although the process is more complicated: You can view the speaker notes while hiding them from your audience.

And thanks to the range of Zoho’s online applications, you can switch to Zoho Meeting from within the presentation and share your desktop with the attendees. (Unsharing the desktop and getting back into controlling the presentation, though, can be a challenge.)

Picking a winner:

Zoho Show’s wide variety of templates and clip art makes it the most useful of the three apps, and its integration with Zoho Meeting gives you a new presentation tool you haven’t had before.

Taking advantage of the Web

All three suites take interesting advantage of the fact that they are Web-based, but we’re still in the learning-to-crawl stage.


The creators of Google Docs, ThinkFree and Zoho have obviously put a lot of thought into how a productivity suite might leverage the power of the Web.

In Google’s case, that means tying Docs to other Google applications — which sometimes works better in theory than it does in practice. You can schedule an “event” around a Google Docs presentation by inviting viewers and putting an entry into your Google Calendar, but when the appointed hour comes, all you get is a pop-up reminder.

Why couldn’t Google Docs open to the presentation, start it, and set you as the presenter? Or at least put a link to the presentation into the pop-up?
Google Docs

Integration with e-mail seems an obvious plus for a Web-based app, but none of the suites do much with it.

Zoho’s Share dialog gives you the option of receiving an update message when the document is edited by a collaborator, and Google Docs does something similar, but not consistently – you can subscribe to an RSS feed within Google Docs documents that’s supposed to display an update when collaborators make edits, but for spreadsheets you get an e-mail, not an RSS option.


Google Docs allows you to select contacts to share documents with by opening your Gmail contacts list. However, neither Zoho nor ThinkFree knows about your e-mail contacts, which seems curious, given how common it is for other Web-based apps like social-networking sites to prompt you for your e-mail account information and suck in all your contacts.

Cross-platform performance is another area that needs development. One of the advantages of using Web-based applications and file storage is that you can work on a variety of platforms from a variety of locations.

All three suites ran more or less well in a Firefox 2.0 browser on Windows, Mac and Linux. They even worked on a minimally configured Linux-based Asus Eee.


But even Google Docs, which offered the most responsive performance of the suites, hit a user interface wall with the Eee’s 800- by 480-pixel screen: The dialog box for creating a chart in a spreadsheet was too big for the screen, so the “OK” button couldn’t be clicked.

This kind of problem is endemic to apps on the increasingly popular breed of ultramobile PCs, and they need careful attention from developers.

Picking a winner:

Of the three suites, Google Docs provides the most Internet connectivity, even though, as noted, there’s still a long way to go here. Google’s generally good support for mobile devices also contributes to the potential of the Web applications platform Google is putting together.


Web-based productivity suites have made a transition. While at first they simply imitated desktop applications in a Web browser, the current versions add features that begin to integrate the social computing features of the Web. At the same time, they’ve begun to grow away from simply imitating Microsoft Office to developing personalities of their own.

They share common ingredients, but the recipes vary. Google Docs begins with Google’s deep understanding of Web application development and yields apps that are consistently usable, if not always feature-rich.

ThinkFree comes from the opposite direction: It began by working hard to replicate the Office user experience in a browser and now needs to focus on Web-enabling the apps. Zoho seems to have the best understanding of the value the Web adds to productivity apps, but Zoho applications don’t always match the usability of Google’s.

Have Your Say

Taken together, the suites prove that Web-based productivity is no longer a contradiction in terms. They have gotten good enough not only to be useful on their own, but also to give an indication of some of the new uses they will make possible as they continue to grow into the Web.

Freelance writer David DeJean began writing about computers after Cobol but before C++. He has worked for newspapers, magazines, trade publications and Web sites.


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