Working online is the future. Soon enough, the cloud will provide all our software, cook our dinner, and even convince our bosses and loved ones that we're still necessary.
Unfortunately we're still in the early stages of that dream, as technologies like HTML and Flash fight for supremacy, and traditional client-based software still sits pretty in the overwhelming majority of industries and on most of our computers. For online office suites, the fight is just beginning.
Three features in particular give the cloud an edge: the ability to access files from any internet-connected system, ease of file-sharing, and automated backing up and versioning. The apps may not be as comfortable to use as Office, nor as feature-packed, but as long as the basics are in place, most users are unlikely to complain - especially if they're getting them for free, as is usually the case for personal use.
The catch is that what you consider an essential feature may not be what Google, Microsoft and the smaller companies prioritise. Many of these tools have been in development for years, but Office in particular has had decades to get to its current state.
It's still relatively early days for the cloud. Still, with online technology racing forward, it won't be long before one of the alternatives pulls ahead. It may have happened already. Let's find out…
Online office tools on test
Microsoft Office Web Apps
ThinkFree Online Office
Google Docs was the first online office suite to hit it big, and is still one of the most popular. When it first launched, it was incredibly primitive. Now it looks and feels far more like Microsoft Office, from the virtual sheet-of-paper view used by its word processor to the availability of many more fonts, including Office's current default, Calibre.
Docs doesn't offer anything close to Office's power, but focuses on the basics that everyone needs for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations and simple vector-based drawing, along with online storage space for additional files and decent file conversion from Office's formats.
Its simplicity can be a downside, but for the most part it's a blessing, stripping out all the features you never use.
There are a few omissions, the biggest being offline editing. Google originally offered this via a plugin, but changed its mind and pulled it in May 2010 on the grounds that HTML5 would be able to do it better. Since then, silence. If you want to edit with Google Docs, you have to do so online and hope your connection doesn't drop.
Similarly, while the word processing component is great for typing, its inability to do simple things like show you how much of a page you're using without doing a print preview, customise headers or change the language in a specific document make it clear that there's a long way to go.
Google adds features on a regular basis, but don't hold your breath for specific improvements. Development on Docs feels slow - too slow, given the amount still to do.
Microsoft Office Web Apps
For Microsoft, offering a free version of Office to anyone with a Live ID account is more than a bit of a gamble, so it's not too surprising that the Office Web Apps built into Skydrive aren't exactly direct competitors to their offline counterparts.
Excel WebApp, for instance, lets you put together basic spreadsheets and graphs just like the regular version, but a quick glance at the toolbar compared to the full applications' Ribbon makes it clear just how little you can do in comparison, and how few time-saving features are on offer to help you do it.
For simple spreadsheets though, it's fine, which is more than can be said for the online version of Word. This gives you a genuinely horrible editor to work with, forcing you to type into a full-width text box. You can switch to a more traditional view for reading files and see how your document will look when printed out, but only via a read-only preview called 'Reading Mode'. This is truly dire.
Proper margins and maximum line lengths make writing far more comfortable, to say nothing of giving you a much better idea of how much you've written and how many pages you're using.
The online version of Word looks especially bad when you fire up OneNote WebApp - Office Web Apps' diamond in the rough. Here, the simplicity works in its favour, making it easy to create an online notebook and fill it with text, images and more, from a very comfortable editing window that Word should be using.
We like OneNote a lot, and this version - while cut down - is good enough to save most people the cost of the full product.
For sheer features, Zoho is the king of online office suites. With text documents, accounting, spreadsheets, presentations, mail, calendars, notebooks, wikis, discussion groups, invoicing and more, Zoho offers a jaw-dropping number of features.
Better yet, all of them are available free for personal use. They're geared towards business use though, with the idea being that you pay for additional users and features in specific apps. The website doesn't do a great job of explaining this up front, but at least you can try everything without having to pay first.
All the apps run from the Mail screen, whether you use it or not. You can sign in with a Google or Facebook account, or create a new one.
In terms of features, the apps easily go head-to-head with anything else out there, although the look and feel didn't click with us as well as many others. Every app you run has its own distinct feel and style, which can be jarring, whether it's something as simple as a different style of tab, or being kicked out of the mail interface because a different app demands the whole screen to itself.
The tools are powerful, but could do with more consistency and a good pumice stone to scrape away some of the rough edges. For these reasons more than any inherent weaknesses in Zoho's range, we found we didn't want to spend too much time in the suite, which is a key factor when choosing which software you're going to be staring at all day.
You can't argue with its power though, and if you want all of your business and editing tools in one place, this is where you'll find them waiting for you.