Look Out, Microsoft Office

Web-based programs have their limitations, but the price is right


A decade ago, BusinessWeek ran a cover story predicting that all software would soon be delivered to consumers over the Web, which was then in its infancy. Like many tech prognostications, this was wildly premature, but it may yet prove correct. As simple, serviceable alternatives to Microsoft (MSFT ) Office proliferate, it seems as if the era of Web-based software is upon us.

The latest example of this trend is Google (GOOG ) Spreadsheets. (You can ask to participate in testing it at spreadsheets.google.com.) It's not going to make anyone give up on Microsoft Excel for financial models, big budgets, or fancy presentations. But two things about it were a pleasant surprise: First, it's a free product that includes most of Excel's basic computational abilities, including dozens of math, statistical, financial, and other functions. Second, despite being Web-based, it looks and feels like a desktop application and performs nearly as well.

There are some serious limitations. It works only when you are online, and by default, Google spreadsheets are stored on Google servers. You won't want to put your sensitive data there. You also can't do charts or graphs or fancy "what if" tables. Printing options are limited and work badly for large spreadsheets. And there's no programming language to automate repetitive tasks. But you can open Excel spreadsheets and save your work as an Excel file. And several people can work on the same spreadsheet, a feature Microsoft offers only as part of a fancy collaborative workgroup system.

EARLIER THIS YEAR, GOOGLE BOUGHT a Web-based word processor called Writely, then took the program offline for some retooling. Over time, it could bundle this in a suite with Spreadsheet, Gmail, Google Calendar, and other programs. If Google does this right, the result will be leaner and easier to use than the bloated Office programs.

You don't need to wait for Google if you want to try out a Web-based writing program. Check out ajaxWrite, at ajaxwrite.com. (Ajax is the name of a freely available software tool for creating interactive Web applications.) AjaxWrite is less polished than Google Spreadsheet, and it runs only in the Firefox browser. On the plus side, it can open and save Word files, and all the information is stored on your computer, not on the Web.

Launched by a company called Ajax 13, this word processor includes perhaps 10% of the features that are in Word. For example, it lacks footnoting and bibliography tools, as well as the ability to track editing changes in a document. But most users are unlikely to miss the 90% that this program leaves out. AjaxWrite is part of a suite that includes a drawing program called ajaxSketch and two programs that are still under development: ajaxXLS, a spreadsheet, and ajaxPPT, a sort of online PowerPoint.

Because it is an industry standard, Ajax is available to anyone who wants to use it. Yahoo! (YHOO ) took advantage of this in its new Web mail software that lets you drag and drop appointments and messages, just like a desktop program. Ajax is also the basis of a package of programs and services that Microsoft is bundling under the catchall brand Windows Live (live.com).

All these applications are free, at least for now, and it's not clear how any of them will make money. Somehow, they will have to contribute to the fortunes of their sponsors or they will eventually disappear, like many of the free services invented during the Internet bubble.

Knowing the risks, I'll venture a prediction: This new breed of Web-based applications is going to pose a huge challenge to traditional desktop software. Microsoft Office programs will remain the choice for corporations, schools, and other large institutions where their advanced features are widely used. But for individuals and small businesses, simpler will be better -- especially if it's cheap or free. If your demands are modest, these Web applications will be the way to go.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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