Everybody on the Net knows that Google is gunning for the heart of Microsoft's Office business, with its online word processor, Writely, and its spreadsheet, Google Spreadsheets. But Microsoft's most vulnerable application is , since it's used so much by business travelers (who might appreciate not having to lug their own computer around) and because easy access to online presentations could revolutionize sales.
Google isn't yet talking about its PowerPoint killer, but a few start-ups, such as Zoho, Structured Data, and ThinkFree, are testing products that show us what a presentation service will look like online.
Zoho's product, ZohoShow, is in closed alpha testing. It is, at the moment, extremely basic. You can create simple text charts and insert graphics, as well as import picture from Flickr, which is cool. There are no transition effects and none of the cool chart-building utilities you get in PowerPoint.
However, each presentation has its own Web address, which makes sharing your work with others extremely easy. In the alpha I tried, the URL isn't displayed anywhere, but it's easy to find. I imagine one of the first features to be added to ZohoShow, hopefully before it goes into public testing, will be a "send to an associate" link (with some security on the presentations as well, since that's also missing). Another feature needed is the capability for the presenter to remotely control which slides another user on the Web is seeing.
Zoho's Rahu Vegesna told me that Skype integration is also coming soon. This is a very powerful idea: From your computer, you'll be able to call a contact and talk them through an onscreen slide show.
Structured Data's service, Thumbstacks, at the moment has a very slightly more refined user experience. It's also in open alpha testing, so you can try it out if you're curious about this breed of online software. You can create simple slide shows and import images from Flickr to spice them up. But like ZohoShow, there are only a few basic templates, and you can't change a show's template once you've started work on the file. Thumbstacks does make it easier to find the URL of your presentation, and it lets you set presentations to "private." It also lets you remotely control a slideshow on up to five other viewers' displays.
The most developed of the presentation tools is ThinkFree Show. It's very much a work-alike to Microsoft Office but without some of the advanced features. It will even open PowerPoint files with fairly good fidelity. But its reliance on Java slows it down, and it too is missing the remote control function that will truly help online slide shows differentiate from traditional software.
A challenge with all these products is that while they will be great for users who can be online to make presentations, things change if you find yourself offline, with nothing but a laptop and a projector between you and your audience. Thumbstacks does let you save a presentation as an HTML file; ThinkFree saves both PowerPoint and PDF files. Zoho plans to add a complete offline version of its suite to handle the situation.
There are still too many features missing from the newest online slide show tools, ZohoShow and Thumbstacks. I hope they add features before they are launched as public betas. Unfortunately, in this software category, advanced features (animations, oddball slide formats, and so on) do matter, since many people think tweaking their presentations makes them better. At the moment, ThinkFree's offering is the closest online competitor to PowerPoint. But I'm going to keep an eye on Zoho. This company, like ThinkFree, is building a suite of solid online applications, including a spreadsheet and a word processor.
It's a bit early to tell any presenter that he or she can live without PowerPoint. ThinkFree is at the leading edge of this space, but I expect Zoho to come along quickly. Soon, many users really won't need to buy an office suite.
This post has been corrected from the original, which said Thumbstacks does not have a remote control function. It does.