Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Making the switch from Microsoft Office to Web apps

If you don't compute in a corporate environment, you may be able to replace Word, Excel, and PowerPoint with their Web-based counterparts.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
4 min read

The only reason I've opened Microsoft Outlook or any other desktop e-mail program in the last year is to test tips. Since I added my ISP account to my Gmail in-box, and moved my Outlook appointments to Google Calendar, I get all the information I need in my browser.

Now I'm getting ready to boot Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for their Web alternatives, but before I bail on Office entirely, I stuck a toe in the Web-apps water by using the free ThinkFree Online service irregularly over the past few weeks. So far, I haven't missed Word, Excel, or PowerPoint one bit. In fact, I appreciate the comparative simplicity of their Web counterparts, which have worked without a hitch--so far, at least.

ThinkFree Online is a Java-based service that provides 1GB of storage for your files, though individual files can't be larger than 10MB. You can upload .doc, .xls, and .ppt files to the site (it works with Office 2007's XML formats as well), work on them in an environment much like their native Office apps (though in a smaller window with text ads along the right margin), and return them to your desktop, where they open in the Office equivalent with all changes in place. There's also a limited-function, Ajax-based Quick Edit app for making fast, simple changes to files.

You can choose to keep your files private, or share them, either with a select group, or the world. In fact, easy collaboration is one of the great features of the service for workgroups. You can tag files for easy retrieval, but ThinkFree's search feature located the files I was looking for without having to attach tags to them.

The first time you open a file in the service, it loads some information in your Java Virtual Machine, but subsequently files load at near-desktop speed. You have to make some concessions, such as the text ads, and your selection of fonts is limited. You can't be certain your macros, functions, and other Office customizations will work in the online apps. (I haven't needed any.) Also, a browser can't match the resolution of your desktop apps, but generally the transition from Office to ThinkFree is seamless.

The ThinkFree Online document window
Work on Office documents in the free ThinkFree Online service much like you do in their native apps. ThinkFree

From the My Office page you get a snapshot of your files, as well as controls for creating, uploading, downloading, and syncing documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. Click the "Go to the file list" button near the bottom of the window to get a more detailed view of your files, as well as to share them, tag them, rename them, or perform other operations.

The ThinkFree Online Webtop
The ThinkFree Online Webtop lets you upload, download, and otherwise manage your files. ThinkFree

If you need to work on your files while offline, you can upgrade to the Premium Edition of the service, which is free during the beta period (no indication of when that period may end). The Premium version also lets you sync files automatically in the background, and load files larger than 10MB, though you can't open these larger files in the online version. There's also the $50 ThinkFree Desktop version, though I use the free OpenOffice.org on my Ubuntu system, which provides all the Office compatibility I need.

Even though ThinkFree offers the ThinkFree Server version for enterprises, I can understand why large organizations would hesitate to abandon Office. First there's the support costs, since their help-desk staff is trained in Office apps. Then there are the many customizations large organizations have applied to the programs. But the biggest reason enterprises will likely stick with Office is the greater amount of control it gives them over file management. I'm sure it makes a lot of IT managers nervous to think about their organization's important documents residing outside of the Office system. (Just suggesting that people save their Outlook e-mail outside of the program raised some IT hackles.)

Google's online apps loom as another Office threat
Even with my reliance on Gmail and Google Calendar, I haven't been tempted to use Google Docs full time, in part because I'm happy with ThinkFree Online. On those occasions when I have tested Google's online apps, I've been pleased with their performance. But ThinkFree comes closer to matching the Office work environment, even with those darn ads. Still, with the expected arrival of online applications using the Google Gears API for offline access, it's difficult to ignore the potential Google's services could have for current Office users. Another factor that might change my mind is whether Google Apps become more tightly integrated with other services from the company. Right now there's not much tying them together besides a log-on ID.

Tomorrow: Customize the Open and Save dialog boxes in Vista and XP.