9 Web-based office productivity suites

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from PCWorld.com.

Both Google and Microsoft are making big promises about browser-based environments that allow you to access documents, spreadsheets, calendars, contacts, and more, all in one place online. But so far, it's not entirely clear how these systems will work or what they will be able to do. Google's Chrome OS, for example, will be designed primarily to get you online faster.

But why do you need a Google OS when you already have access to so many of Google's online tools--such as Google Docs, Gmail, and Google Reader--all of which are available from any browser on any operating system? Microsoft Office 2010, meanwhile, will let you access Web versions of Microsoft's famous suite of productivity applications--that is, it will be a Web-based suite that will compete directly with Google Docs.

While we wait for the big guns to launch those products, a good number of services already allow you to put your own computer in the cloud for free. Most of the products I looked at are called Webtops, application suites that try to give you the look and feel of a regular computer desktop within a Web browser.

Many Webtops let you store files and media online, save browser bookmarks, and access a variety of Web apps such as word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation software from almost any browser. Some of these Webtops have been around for several years, while others are younger upstarts still trying to work the bugs out. But all of them take different approaches toward the mobile and virtual tricks that will almost certainly characterize productivity-app platforms of the future.

I took several of these cloud-based systems for a quick spin to see how the future is shaping up. Let's start with the two that impressed me most.

Glide OS

Transmedia's Glide OS makes a strong showing compared with other Webtops. Glide has a variety of functional tools that can help you get things done, whether you're working alone or with an online group. A basic Glide OS account is free, and includes 10GB of free online storage and the ability to add up to six users under one account. A paid option costs $4.95/month or $49.95/year for up to 25 users sharing 25GB of storage. You can't add more users, but you can add more storage in 25GB increments for $4.95 each.

Glide had by far the fastest startup and response time out of all the online systems I tried. The Webtop has applications for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, calendar, and address book, plus a Web-site builder. The company says its applications support compatibility with over 250 file formats, and you can create online meetings among Glide OS users you're connected to. The Webtop also provides granular controls that let you decide who you want to share your documents with and how often. Glide also offers an e-mail application that uses both the POP and IMAP standard, and has an integrated search tool featuring Web results from Ask.com. Other applications include a basic photo editor and a music player. The productivity suite, including e-mail, word processing, and other apps, can also be connected within Glide's new rights-based social networking service, Glide Engage.

Glide is divided into three sections: the desktop, your online file system (called Glide HD), and the Glide Portal that lets you access Web content within Glide's environment. These three sections are a great way to navigate within the Web-based system and are easily accessible from the top of the browser screen. However, I found the Portal to be a little on the gimmicky side. Within the Portal are bookmarks for sites relating to broad categories like business news, political news, general news and current events, health, sports, pets, and more. The Portal view also has a customizable stock ticker running across the top.

Also, I found the performance of the Glide Portal to be a little inconsistent, depending on the browser you use. Links to news stories, for example, were dead when I tried Glide Portal with Firefox 3.5 and Safari 4, rendering the Portal essentially useless. When I tried it in Google Chrome for Mac I was able to navigate to external links from the Portal, but the news summaries I saw in Firefox and Safari were gone. I should note that Google Chrome's Mac version is still in developer preview, and therefore isn't an ideal way to test a Web-based service.

With Glide you can also grab media such as a document, video, music file, or even a Web link from the Portal, and use that media in a variety of actions. You can, for example, add a news story to meeting notes, e-mail the story to contacts or create a group discussion page around it. Integrating media with other actions could be a handy feature; but to be honest, it feels like another gimmick to me, and I'm not so sure it's all that useful in the real world.

Glide OS has a sync application for your local desktop, and a mobile application that works with over 100 devices including Windows Mobile, Symbian, BlackBerry, iPhone, and Android handsets.

Pros: 10GB Free storage, multiple user accounts, mobile app, wide variety of productivity and playtime applications, good search integration and well-designed file system.

Cons: A few gimmicky features such as the Glide Portal, no instant messenger, no full screen view, and no ability to change the default search engine away from Ask.

Tip: Glide OS has some known display issues with Internet Explorer 8 that require some adjustments to the Registry to fix. If you're not comfortable with making Registry changes, you're better off using a different Web browser like Firefox, Opera, Chrome, or Safari.

Try Glide OS

G.ho.st

A joint project between Israeli and Palestinian programmers, G.ho.st is based on Amazon's S3 Web services and recently moved out of its alpha phase into public beta. G.ho.st claims to be the world's only true Web OS, since the service says it can work openly and seamlessly with leading third-party Web applications such as Google Docs and Zoho. G.ho.st has a lot of promise and some very functional tools, but it's not quite as polished as I'd hoped, and the experience was a little inconsistent and buggy.

When you click on a desktop item, for example, it tends to stay highlighted until you click on it again. That can become distracting and hard to look at, once all your desktop items are highlighted. At one point I also had an annoying problem with G.ho.st's keyboard shortcuts. The feature malfunctioned, making it impossible to hit letters like 'n' or 's' without causing G.ho.st to carry out a process like saving a file or refreshing the Web page. Needless to say, this made G.ho.st impossible to use; however, over the several days that I tried out G.ho.st, that malfunction happened only once, and I was able to fix it with a browser refresh.

On the plus side, G.ho.st comes with all kinds of goodies, including 15GB of free storage; support for 24 different default languages; a good file-sync manager; a mobile phone Web app; your own G.ho.st-branded e-mail with POP support; an MP3 player; an integrated Flickr search tool; an instant messenging app with support for AOL, Gmail, Yahoo, and MSN protocols; quick-launch access to a variety of Web search and info sites including Google, Yahoo, and Wikipedia; and a wide library of applications you can use to customize your G.ho.st desktop.

G.ho.st also has the best in-environment Web browser of all the services I tried out. It will save your cookies and browsing history so you can access them anywhere.

G.ho.st uses the Zoho online office suite for its default productivity applications, and the programs can be viewed within the environment. You can also save and access files from your Google Docs account, and can even send a document directly to Microsoft Office applications on your desktop. The only downside to G.ho.st's office suite is that it does not have a PDF reader.

Pros: Offers a whopping 15GB of free storage; wide support for various productivity file formats; a good e-mail tool that allows you to create appointments from e-mails; features a drag-and-drop appointment maker; a tabbed browser and MP3 player.

Cons: No support for the PDF format. If you are going to use G.ho.st, be prepared for the occasional flaw, but know that most problems can be fixed with a browser refresh.

Tip: G.ho.st's homepage is in Hebrew by default. In the address bar, just switch "he" for Hebrew at the end of the URL to "en" for English so you can navigate the site more easily.

Try G.ho.st

Startforce

Although it lists itself as a public beta, Startforce is one of the strongest performers among Webtops, with its own set of branded Web apps for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. It also has an e-mail client, in-environment Web browser, audio player, and IM client, and it comes with 1GB of free storage. One of the big advantages of Startforce is its fast response time, but a significant downside that I found during my tests is that Startforce does not work well with Apple's Safari Web browser.

Pros: Fast response time, customizable Windows environment, 1GB of free storage.

Cons: In my tests on a Mac, the Java-based uploader would not work, so I could not get files onto my Webtop. Also, StartForce works only if you shut down all other open Web pages in your browser. Once the Webtop is up and running, you can use other browser tabs again.

Try Startforce

AirSet

AirSet is not as functional as some other Webtops I've seen, but overall it's a pretty good experience. AirSet 's most full-featured application is its Web publishing software, which can help you create a Web site, blog, photo album, or newsletter. But Airset lacks other office essentials such as apps for word processing and spreadsheets.

Airset also has a contact and calendar manager that can sync directly with Outlook, and an IM client as well as 1GB of free online storage. But AirSet does not support Microsoft Word's ".doc" format. AirSet also has a group function that allows you to collaborate with other AirSet users; however, this is a for-pay function that is not available in the free service.

Pros: Outlook calendar and contact syncing; uses a Java applet or HTML interface for uploading (both are excellent); 1GB of free storage, $2 per month for every 5GB after that; AirSet mobile application allows for greater access; customizable desktop.

Cons: Webtop is ad-supported, so you lose some screen space; bare-bones productivity support with no spreadsheet or presentation software. AirSet does not support the .doc format--only basic text files and WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). Good IM client, but it requires a manual sign-in for each service, even though it memorizes your passwords.

Tip: When I started up AirSet I got a warning that the Webtop does not officially support Firefox 3.5, but that I should try running it anyway. AirSet officially supports Firefox 3, Safari 3, and Internet Explorer 7.

Try AirSet

ajaxWindows

Of all the Webtops I tried, ajaxWindows is the one that most closely emulates Windows (with Startforce coming in a close second).

The ajaxWindows desktop automatically opens up in full-screen mode, but its in-environment Web browser leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of opening up new pages within the virtual computer, ajaxWindows kept directing me to a new browser window. But I couldn't see the new window outside the ajax environment, because the Webtop was in full-screen mode. Redirecting Web pages outside the environment is a common problem in Webtops.

ajaxWindows has its own applications for presentations and word processing, but nothing for spreadsheets. If you don't want to use ajax's Web apps, you can use quick-launch icons to access your Google and Zoho documents outside of the virtual computer. The Webtop will also automatically sign you up for 1GB of free storage with Box.net, computer-to-cloud syncing with SyncWizard. For music you get a free MP3 storage locker from MP3tunes. Ajax's MP3 player then uses your files stored with MP3tunes to play music in the Webtop environment.

Although Ajax Windows signs you up for these storage services, you will have to log in the first time you use them. AjaxWindows also comes with customizable desktop widgets.

Pros: 1GB of free storage; uses Meebo as IM client to support wide range of IM protocols; integrated with other services including box.net for storage and MP3 locker for music storage. Ajax-branded productivity software, and quick-launch access to Google and Zoho services.

Cons: Poorly designed Web browser; no in-environment support for spreadsheets; plug-in required for Internet Explorer.

Tip: Internet Explorer users are required to download a plug-in for ajaxWindows to work. Use Firefox instead.

Try ajaxWindows

Prism

We've spent most of this article focusing on Webtops that take you to the cloud. Prism Mozilla, on the other hand, does exactly the reverse and brings the cloud to your desktop. Prism is a Mozilla Labs experiment, available as a stand-alone program or as a Firefox add-on that allows you to create local Web apps on your personal computer's desktop. I tried out Prism by creating local versions of Gmail, Meebo, and Google Docs applications. The applications can be placed as an icon on your desktop or in other locations on your system, depending on your OS. With Prism, your choices of applications are virtually limitless; as such they would work well for Linux or Windows users with empty systems who want to opt for Web apps instead of open-source or commercial software.

I was disappointed with Prism, however, because I'd hoped to create Web apps I could put on a thumb drive and port around to whatever system I happened to be in front of. Unfortunately, at the moment Prism isn't designed to do that, and I don't know of any other services that are. But if Mozilla could figure out a way to have Prism create quick-launch apps of your favorite Web sites and services that you could carry with you, Prism would be a more relevant and usable system than it is right now.

Pros: Fast access to your Web apps without opening a browser; acts and feels like a desktop application.

Cons: Using too many Web apps at once can put a drain on your processing power. Not an entirely practical solution when so many other online services are available.

Try Prism

iCloud

Created by Xcerion, iCloud (in public beta) is optimized for Internet Explorer, with a Firefox version currently in alpha. I did most of my tests on Mac using Firefox, but for this Webtop I also hopped over to a Windows machine to give iCloud a try on Internet Explorer.

At first glance, iCloud seems to be tailored to the recreational user, with an application for watching online videos, a network of online discussion groups, and an instant messaging application with support for MSN, AOL, ICQ, and iCloud's own IM protocol. ICloud also has the best full- screen functioning out of all the Webtops I tried, giving you a more authentic desktop feel even though you're actually working online.

Productivity apps in iCloud are fairly basic: They include presentation software, a to-do list, and personal budget tracking. All word processing is done in Rich Text Format, with a Microsoft Word converter for uploaded '.doc' files. ICloud also has a calendar and contacts manager, and you get your own iCloud e-mail account with IMAP support. No spreadsheet support is currently available.

Pros: Easy to use, responsive software. Good full-screen support.

Cons: Annoying Vista-style widgets take up screen space; productivity suite is limited.

Try iCloud

cmyOS

cmyOS is based on the eyeOS cloud operating system. If you're looking for a bare-bones system that still maintains a reasonable amount of functionality, then cmyOS just might be the Webtop for you. cmyOS has a word-processing app, but no spreadsheet or presentation software. Other applications include a calendar and a contact manager, as well as a limited in-environment Web browser.

In short, cmyOS works well, but it doesn't have a lot of features. At the same time, I didn't run into any of the roadblocks I experienced with G.ho.st. I also felt cmyOS has its priorities for Web apps straight, unlike AirSet, since it focuses on Web publishing instead of a word processor or spreadsheet program.

Pros: Online collaboration; no-nonsense Webtop focused on productivity.

Cons: Limited functionality compared with other Webtops; in-environment browser limited to YouTube, Yahoo Messenger, Google, Facebook, and Flickr. Storage space not specified. No support for spreadsheets or presentations.

Try cmyOS

Astranos

Clearly a Mac-inspired creation, Astranos stands for Astra is Not an Operating System, and, boy, they aren't kidding. The bare-bones Webtop features a bizarre mix of an OS X Tiger-style dock mixed with Windows 95 application windows. And what Astranos lacks in style it does not make up for in functionality. The only apps on this Webtop include a notepad and an IM client. Astranos is also a little buggy, displaying cryptic error messages whenever you call up some of its applications.

Pros: Has notepad function, IM client, and 1GB of free storage from Dropboks (no relation to Dropbox).

Cons: Extremely minimal, not much functionality.

Tip: Unless you're a fan of Tetris (one of the games available on Astranos), you might want to steer clear of this Webtop.

Try Astranos (no login required at startup)

My Preferences

Out of all the Webtops I tried, the two standouts were Glide OS and G.ho.st. Both have the largest storage capacities, and they offer a wide variety of applications for work and play. If I had to choose between the two, I would work with Glide OS for now, since it has the fastest response time and the fewest problems. But I also like what I'm seeing from G.ho.st, and even though I found some irritating bugs in the beta version, I think it will be a great service once all the kinks are worked out.

Final Thoughts

For my tests I used a MacBook running Mozilla's Firefox Web browser, and I also tested a few of these services on a Windows machine to see if there were any differences. With the exception of iCloud, which was specifically designed for IE, I found few differences running the Webtops on Windows or on a Mac. This is a good sign since a Web-based system needs to be accessible from whatever operating system you happen to be using.

One of the most bothersome aspects of the Webtops I tested was their tendency for the browser to switch out of the Webtop environment and back to your regular browser. This happened most often when I was operating a Webtop in full screen mode, when there was little reason to escape the Webtop space for the standard browser environment.

Despite that complaint, Webtops are a great way to store files for which you need quick access. More importantly, Webtops can give you a familiar work environment that looks the same whether you're working at your home computer, or remotely from a borrowed or public computer. They won't be replacing your traditional desktop anytime soon, but Webtops--the ones that run smoothly and that offer a reasonably broad application set--can release you from the hassle of carrying your apps and data around on a laptop wherever you go.

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