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

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