Teamwork and collaboration are nice words, and are very helpful for the smooth functioning of any organisation. But when you talk about teams spread out over different locations collaborating (or trying to) thanks to technology, you're usually talking locked files, mismatched versions, and the ultimate horror the wrong version going to the big boss, or even worse, the client! We've all had our share of bad experiences with desktop applications that claim to make document sharing easier, but now that Web 2.0 is upon us, new online applications promise to change that. We've taken a look at Google's three new warriors Google Calendar (http://calendar/. google.com), Google Spreadsheets (http:// spreadsheets.google.com) and Google Docs (http://docs/. google.com), and a little-known online office suite called Zoho Web 2.0 Office (http://www.zoho.com/).
It won't oust Excel from its position yet, but Google Spreadsheets is a compelling online application for creating, editing, and sharing spreadsheets online. It works well in IE and Firefox, but doesn't support Opera, even if you use the "Mask as Mozilla" feature. To start a spreadsheet, all you need is a Google account.
Google Spreadsheets has obviously been designed to make Excel users feel at home-all your oft-used keyboard shortcuts ([Ctrl] [B] for bold, [Ctrl] [I] for italics, and so on) are supported, as are formulas. The handy Formulas tab lets you make all the calculations you need as well. When you save the sheet, it gets saved online, and you can save it on your PC by exporting it to Excel, OpenOffice, comma-separated values, even PDF. You can also import your own Excel sheets into Spreadsheet, and for the most part, this function works just fine.
It does encounter problems when importing complex sheets, though-we imported a sheet that was filtered on a person's name, and found that the data hidden by the filter in Excel didn't even make it to the online version.
Where Google Spreadsheets really manages to shine, though, is in what we've been harping about all along-collaboration. You can invite anyone to either view or edit the spreadsheet in real-time-you can all watch the changes that everyone makes, and in the chat panel on the right, discuss the goings-on, call each other names and more. While this can completely plunge into chaos if lots of people are involved-there's no way to see who made which change-it can be a real help when two or three people need to work on the same spreadsheet.
You can also let the general public view the sheet-just select "Let Everyone View" under Sharing Options, and it gives you a URL that you can then IM or e-mail to anyone.
On the flip side, Google Spreadsheets doesn't support charts (yet), and we encountered the quite ominous "Oops...there was a server error" more times than we'd like. Still, improvements are happening as we write this.
What's Up, Doc?
Earlier this year, Google bought Writely, an online word processor, which has now become Google Docs. The word processor itself isn't monumentally great, but you get all the basic functionality you need and it's quite easy to use. One feature we'd like to have seen is the ability to embed or integrate with Spreadsheets; for now we must wait and watch.
Here too, due attention has been paid to collaboration, letting two or more people work on the document in real time.
Collaborators you choose can invite other collaborators as well; this could result in a potentially chaotic situation, so do watch who you invite. You can also invite people to just view your document, or alternatively publish it to the web for all to see. You can also publish the document to your blog.
Then there's the Revisions tab, which lets you track the changes that have been made to the documents, and who made them-quite essential.
Docs and Spreadsheets now have a common home page, and you can manage, share or un-share them in a simple Gmail-like interface.
I'm Free, You're Free?
Most people who use Outlook don't take advantage of its calendar the way they should, simply because the features remain unusable unless you're on a local domain with a Microsoft Exchange Server-an expensive proposition for small and medium businesses. You can not only schedule meetings, but even view when the rest of your team is free and make plans accordingly. With Google Calendar, you now have these features within your grasp. You can create your own calendar with events and appointments with the same ease that you can in Outlook itself, perhaps even more. Creating a new meeting or appointment is as simple as clicking on the day or time-slot and entering the name of the event.
As with Spreadsheet, Calendar's best features lie in sharing. You can share your calendar in different ways-either show everyone what you're doing and when you're doing it, or just show them when you're free and busy. You can also invite specific people to manage and edit the events on your calendar-let your boss manage your meetings, perhaps? All your calendars (your own as well as ones that are shared with you) come colour-coded, so it's easy to differentiate between events.
Calendar integrates with Gmail, so when you send someone an invitation to an event, they can add it to their calendars in an instant. Google also offers you a code snippet you can add to your site, which visitors can use to add an event you create to their own calendars. Visit to generate that code. Overall, Calendar is tremendously useful if you spend a lot of time online, and works best if you have Google Talk turned on-otherwise you might just end up missing that appointment reminder.
The Complete Online Office?
Adventnet has developed the Zoho Online Office . which consists of Zoho Show-the presentation program, Zoho Sheet-the spreadsheet application, Zoho Writer-the word processor, and Zoho Planner-an online organiser. You need to register separately for each application, which is mildly irritating, but the registration process is the simplest we've ever seen-just fill in an extra text box-no verification e-mails, no annoying demographic information.
When you get to the applications themselves, it's remarkable how uncannily familiar the environment is-especially Zoho Sheet, which looks and behaves just like Excel. Moreover, unlike in Google Spreadsheets, you can even create charts in this one. The other features are effectively the same, though there's no real-time editing for this one.
Zoho Writer is an elegant word processor (and you guessed it-it's just like Word), and it, too, tracks changes made to the document, so you can even revert to an older version if you choose. You can share documents or publish them for public view, generate .doc files, PDFs, and even group-edit them in real time.
With Zoho Show, you can create presentations online and import your PowerPoint presentations as well. Given the rest of the suite though, Show is a disappointment-we would have like to see integration with our Zoho Sheets the way one might have between Excel and PowerPoint, but it's still worthy for creating basic text-and-images presentations.
Zoho Planner is unconventional in the way it behaves, but the interface is quite intuitive, so you shouldn't have problems getting used to it. You can create pages within this organiser that you can make public or share with specific people, and even search and view pages that people have shared publicly.
Zoho also offers you a virtual office called ZohoX, which lets you check your POP e-mail online, share documents, use instant messaging with other members of your virtual office and a calendar to schedule meetings. It's free for individuals, but you'll need to cough up for additional users or if you want the On-Premise version which you can deploy on your office LAN.
Overall, we found that the Zoho suite requires a little more bandwidth than the Google applications, but with a sturdy connection, it's worth it. It's the only one that works with Opera (winning a well-deserved brownie point from most of the Digit team), and even has a crucial component that the rest have missed-a spell-checker!
Should you be uninstalling your office suite and shifting camp online? We'd keep those itchy fingers off. Firstly, while all these applications are quite functional, they're still in beta, so even if you're going to use them, having a local copy is desirable, lest Google hit you with their famous "Oops". You will also require a robust Internet connection-a rare commodity even now. Also, remember that your documents are going to be stored online, so it might not be a good idea to start drawing up your company's balance sheet in Zoho Sheet, or uploading any other confidential and sensitive documents just yet.
Online office suites are a good idea when you and your team are separated by large distances and want to get some basic documentation out of the way, and the future looks promising for the concept in general.