Out of office

Hoping to save on software costs, agencies tentatively try online office productivity suites

Online office productivity suites

Ajax 13

Product: Ajax13 Web Applications

Key Applications: Word processing, spreadsheet generation and presentation publication.

us.ajax13.com/en/

Google

Product: Google Apps Premier Edition

Key Applications: E-mail, calendaring, word processing, spreadsheet generation and enterprise search.

www.google.com/a/

Intuit

Product: QuickBase

Key Applications: Spreadsheet generation, document import and collaboration.

www.quickbase.com/p/home.asp

ShareMethods

Product: ShareOffice

Key Applications: Document generation, spreadsheet and basic customer relationship management.

www.sharemethods.com/products/shareoffice.html

ThinkFree

Product: ThinkFree Office

Key Applications: E-mail, document generation and collaboration, spreadsheet generation and presentation publishing.

product.thinkfree.com/

Zimbra

Product: Zimbra Collaboration Suite

Key Applications: E-mail, calendaring, document generation.

www.zimbra.com/products/zimbra_for_organizations.html

Zoho

Product: Zoho Online Office Suite

Key Applications: Word processing, spreadsheet generation, presentation publication, basic CRM capabilities, online conferencing and e-mail.

www.zoho.com

Like a small but growing number of government agencies, the town of Castle Rock, Colo., no longer relies solely on the industry's most pervasive administrative software package, Microsoft Office. Lured by the promise of easier collaboration, the town is now weighing online alternatives to static spreadsheets, tired word processing applications and other all-too-familiar office tools.

'Our policy now is to avoid the use of Microsoft applications such as Access and Excel, if the staff needs to share data extensively,' said Kevin Capp, Castle Rock's chief technology officer, who has turned to Intuit's QuickBase set of online applications to meet some core administrative needs.

At this point, government users seem willing to take only baby steps away from Microsoft Office by sampling a limited number of online offerings. For example, some are nibbling at alternatives to Excel or to Outlook's calendar capabilities. Although most agencies wouldn't consider scrapping Office altogether, the prospect of cutting into the steep price of maintaining an army of Exchange servers does have appeal.

Google Enterprise is leading the current online office productivity charge after wrapping several staple applications into its growing corporate product line, Google Custom Business Search Edition. A handful of smaller companies are following suit. Collectively, they are looking to pluck away from Microsoft at least some government users ' mostly those who want the ability to post to the Internet documents normally trapped within organizations or desktop PCs.

Castle Rock has tapped QuickBase to let workers collaborate on spreadsheets and other information and thus sharpen project tracking and contract management efforts, Capp said. Although best known for its consumer-oriented financial-planning Quicken and TurboTax products, Intuit packs into QuickBase more than 200 ready-to-go applications tailored for enterprise-level document sharing and project management.

'We've found that our internal staff can create applications on the Web that meet our project requirements without hiring a developer,' he said. 'We also like the ability to access the application from any other computer with a Web browser, since no specialized applications are required on the desktop.'

Intuit is chasing government customers that need more collaborative capabilities, said Bill Lucchini, vice president and general manager of the company. 'QuickBase is built for workgroups that are struggling to accomplish tasks and manage teams and projects. Government agencies are looking to solve these business problems.'

Nucleus Research characterizes the online office productivity market as one peppered with only a few familiar players. 'Google is certainly the most visible vendor in this space,' said Rebecca Wettemann, vice president at Nucleus.

Online options

However, there are other vendors offering inexpensive word processing, spreadsheet, presentation viewing and calendar tools. 'Users can log in and download these applications and then, in most cases, save them either to their desktops or back to the server,' Wettemann said. She mentioned Ajax13, ThinkFree and Zoho, a brand maintained by AdventNet, as providers of online office applications.

These and other vendors offer online applications that range from word processing to basic customer relationship management (CRM) capabilities. For instance, Zimbra, like Ajax 13, makes use of Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX), a process for developing interactive applications.

'Zimbra has hundreds of customers in the public sector,' said John Robb, the company's vice president of product management. He said many agencies are looking for hosted providers that can offer users support for a broad range of desktop clients, including Linux, Apple and Microsoft Office.

Montrose County, Colo., uses Zimbra Collaboration Suite now to incorporate internal use of Web mail but plans to expand use to a variety of Zimbra's open-source messaging applications. 'We are in the process of sharing the Zimbra calendars on our internal Web page,' said the county's information technology director, Robert Flower.

Zimbra's support for several operating systems was a real selling point for the Center for Education, a nonpartisan education organization. 'There is definitely a trend inside our organizations to move applications to the Web,' said Greg Synnott, the center's IT director.

Government users poking around this market should be aware that there are definite limitations to online office productivity offerings.

'Overall, these products are less costly than Microsoft's but also have less functionality,' Wettemann said. 'However, most provide enough functionality to support basic number-crunching and wordsmithing. While not for the power Word or Excel user, for 80 percent of the population, the functionality in many of these products is sufficient.'

Indeed, for many casual Microsoft Office users, the need to strengthen workgroups could outweigh the need for in-depth functionality. 'With these products, it's easier to share and collaborate on documents online than it is in a Microsoft Office environment,' Wettemann said.

Google's executives say that government users are clamoring for collaboration capabilities. 'We see in a lot of organizations ' both large and small ' that the concept of collaboration is broken,' said Rajen Sheth, program manager at Google Enterprise Search. 'How do people typically collaborate with each other? They pass documents back and forth in e-mail. This means the information is essentially stuck within e-mail.'

Although Google built its online office offerings using its signature Gmail, the company has added start pages with ready access to internal information, along with online links to spreadsheet and other documents shared among government workers. Befitting the Internet giant, Google Apps Premier Edition piggybacks those applications on a robust internal search engine. 'Of course, enterprise search was the first main product for Google enterprise,' Sheth said. 'It is a very mature business and now lends itself well to government.'

Despite sinking resources into its effort to capture government accounts, Google and other online office productivity vendors confess that these new offerings cannot ' and should not ' completely displace Microsoft Office. 'Agencies are simply asking for alternatives. This is not an either/or type of position,' said Mike Bradshaw, head of Google Federal Enterprise. 'Our products can be brought in and coexist with Office and add a lot of benefits.'

Nor is Microsoft sitting back and letting these emerging players take charge. 'With Microsoft Office 2007, we have delivered a powerful blend of software plus services. Some examples are products like Excel Services and InfoPath Services,' said Steve Gilmer, a solutions specialist at Microsoft Public Sector. 'We are engaged on a daily basis to help our customers understand how they can leverage the online capabilities of the Office System.'

Excel Services allows an agency creating Excel documents on Office SharePoint Server 2007 to display and share information with others using browsers, portals and dashboards without having to create custom code. With InfoPath Services, users make available internal information stored in enterprise templates through a browser.

Further, companies such as AtTask are working with Microsoft to help deploy access to Excel and other applications to the Web. 'We provide a centralized location ' on demand or on-premises ' where projects can be planned and tracked; where users can go to update status, share documents and discuss issues,' said Chief Executive Officer Scott Johnson. 'AtTask does not compete with, nor do we replace, standard office packages. We complement them.'

Along with efforts to make Office applications more widely available, Microsoft pushes the fact that online office productivity tools may pose a security risk for government agencies. 'Due to numerous regulatory and security concerns, our customers are cautiously analyzing various models,' Gilmer said. He cited regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and several financial regulations, in addition to liability issues that could dog efforts to share and store government documents online.

Google executives said the company is tackling any security-related issues that may stand in the way of government adoption by bringing in experts to ensure that enterprise tools conform to applicable standards. Also, the company in early July made a strategic acquisition that may help allay security concerns: Google bought Postini, a vendor that specializes in hosted e-mail solutions that incorporate encryption, virus filtering, message recovery and content control.

Google and others also point out price differences, claiming that online office productivity alternatives cost as little as an annual $50 per user, while standard Microsoft options can climb to $400 per user, factoring in the costs to maintain the necessary infrastructure.

One vendor predicted that decreased price and increased functionality will help online office productivity vendors make huge inroads in the near future. 'I predict that there will be 100 million users of Web-based office suites within the next five years or less,' said Eric Hoffert, CEO at ShareMethods.

At this stage, however, Microsoft does not appear to be in imminent danger of losing ground to these new alternatives to Office, though the company is keeping an eye on the industry, Wettemann said. 'With a relatively mature product, Microsoft is struggling to show how more features that it adds can deliver compelling value. If most of the functionality people use is available in free or lower-cost applications, why buy Microsoft?'

Jennifer McAdams is a technology writer in Vienna, Va. She can be reached at JMTechWriter@aol.com.

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