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The Web's best desktop-app replacements

If you can get by with the basics, you can get your work done in a browser-based word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, or other application.

Microsoft Office has been and will continue to be the most popular productivity software in the world. That's not likely to change with the release of Office 2010.

But the fact is, much of the work we do in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other Office apps can be accomplished perfectly well using the basic features available in the Web-based equivalents to these and other desktop apps. Here's a quick look at three such services, all of which offer both free and paid versions. I'll also describe a bunch of specialty sites that can help smooth out your workday.

Top Web-based Office alternatives
Three of the best-known Web suites — Google Docs, Zoho, and ThinkFree Online — remain at the top of the category. All three let you create and edit Word documents (DOC), Excel spreadsheets (XLS), and PowerPoint presentations (PPT). The free versions let you share files and folders, but for industrial-strength collaboration, security, and other features businesses require, you need to pay annual fees of $30 to $70 per user.

In addition to browser-based word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation modules, ThinkFree offers an online file viewer and a PDF converter, while Zoho features dozens of specialty apps, including a note-taker, e-mail, and wiki.

The business versions of the three services take very different approaches. The free Google Apps Standard Edition is intended for groups of up to 50 who want to share calendars, collaborate on standard Office files, create a Web site or wiki, and even get a custom e-mail domain. The Premier edition costs $50 per user per year and offers the infrastructure to support an organization's entire network.

The key is that the whole operation resides on Google servers. By contrast, ThinkFree's downloadable Office alternative costs $50 and runs as a standard desktop program. And ThinkFree Enterprise is installed on the customer's own servers. Zoho's many Web-based business tools are free for very small groups or a handful of uses; for subscriptions priced from $10 to $100, you get unlimited use of the programs and usually more features as well. Zoho's apps include Web conferencing, e-mail hosting, CRM, invoicing, and project management.

Zoho Invoice
Zoho's free online invoice application provides basic billing and customer management. Zoho

The word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation components of Google Docs, ThinkFree, and Zoho look and feel much like their Office counterparts — at least the pre-ribbon Office. For example, the Java-based ThinkFree Write features the familiar toolbars and drop-down menus for selecting font sizes and styles and other formatting options. You even get a handful of drawing tools that Google Docs, Zoho Writer, and other online word processors can't match. (Zoho Writer gets bonus points for supporting footers and headers, watermarks, and other relatively advanced word processing features.)

ThinkFree Writer
ThinkFree Writer looks much like a desktop word processing program and offers plenty of not-so-basic features. ThinkFree

Specialty services complement Office programs
Other Web productivity tools make quick work of typical PC tasks. To create a PDF version of a Word document, image, or other type of file in a jiffy, browse to 7-PDF Web Portal, which lets you choose one of five resolutions and ten JPEG compression levels for your PDF.

For creating and editing images in a browser, try Pixlr Editor. The service provides more than a dozen filters and supports layers and color levels. Slider controls let you adjust an image's hue, saturation, brightness, contrast, and other aspects.

To go beyond your word processor's spelling and grammar checks, paste your prose into the Paper Rater service to get a complete analysis of the text, including its originality (and the likelihood it is plagiarized). In addition to spotting potential grammar and spelling errors, the service also rates your style and vocabulary and suggests alternative words.

Even with Windows' built-in Calc applet, I sometimes find myself needing a little help with my math. There's no faster way to calculate a percentage or perform other basic mathematical operation than the Instacalc Online Calculator. Just enter your equation, such as "27% of 285714," "10 inches in cm," or "100 USD in euro" and the solution appears almost immediately. Now all I need is a site that will answer the question, "where did I put my keys?"