Web Office Tools
By Lasa Information Systems Team
Online tools have the potential to enable organisations to more easily exploit ICT and better achieve their organisational goals. This two part article reports on a two week experiment by Miles Maier to see how suitable online tools are for everyday tasks like email, calendar, documents and spreadsheets, and whether they could even replace desktop applications like Microsoft Outlook and Office
DISCLAIMER: The opinions in this article are solely those of the London Regional ICT Champion. We do not advocate any one web service tool over another and this article is purely intended as a guide to help you begin your own experiments with online tools.
Most of the UK voluntary sector has not yet grasped how they can use online tools to connect with their stakeholders. Our two week investigation into online tools found that:
- Online tools have the potential to free organisations from the traditional complexity of ICT decisions;
- Online tools can also help very small organisations (such as those working from Internet cafés) with basic business tasks such as email, calendar, contacts and documents;
- The tools need to be matched to the job that needs doing
- Organisations that grasp the opportunities of new online tools will prosper as they’ll be the ones getting their story heard by funders
- Organisations can be reluctant to use ICT differently; and more examples are needed to show what can be done with online tools;
- It’s difficult to pick the right web tool for the right business task, especially when some but not all of these online tools can integrate with each other and/or synchronise with software such as Outlook.
- Sustainability - choose carefully as the sustainability of online tools is difficult to gauge, given that some of these tools could disappear from the Internet at any time. Make sure you have a disaster recovery plan and you keep a backup of your documents somewhere else.
- Security - issues around entrusting your organisation’s data to a third party like Google or Microsoft still remain to be resolved
What are these tools and why use them?
The online tools reviewed here - GMail, Google Calendar, Plaxo, ThinkFree and Zoho - are all Internet services that function as online email clients, calendars, address books, word processors and spreadsheets.
There some very good reasons to start exploring web office tools for everyday business tasks:
- Total Cost of Ownership - is very low as it removes the cost of buying Microsoft Office licences. All you need is a computer with a broadband Internet connection and a web browser.
- Extremely easy document sharing and collaboration - just think about how often you’ve worked on a shared document and struggled to figure out the changes made by another author…
- Familiar, intuitive word processor and spreadsheet interfaces
- Availability from any computer with an Internet connection (i.e. no need for local copies, CDs, flash drives, etc.)
- Versioning by saving a history of changes (who and when) that can be viewed and compared
- Ability to save local copies if desired
- Ability to import and export documents in various file formats (doc, csv, rtf, txt, html, opd, sxw, pdf)
Again, looking generally at the range of services overall, you should consider their specific situation or need in light of several features including:
Potential access, privacy, or data security issues due to the fact that documents and data are stored on the host’s server
- Data is stored on the host’s server
- Users must be connected to the Internet in order to edit documents
- Typical issues with a service that is hosted outside of your organisation - varying levels of technical support, separate accounts
- Need to manually invite collaborators to share your documents and spreadsheets
- File size limitations
- Data storage limitations
Why collaborate and share data?
The real advantage in using these tools for your work is how well they facilitate working in situations where you need to collaborate or share information with other people. This could be sharing calendar events (such as inviting people to an event or a meeting) or collaborating on documents - such as a funding bid or strategy document. For example, the tools can notify you by email when changes are made to a document, maintain a document revision history, and even allow multiple authors to work on the same document simultaneously, and allow authors to annotate the document with comments – all in a single, completely Web-based package.
At present none of the Web Office Products offer accessibility options. This is something that needs to be developed if these tools are ever to truly replace traditional Office products.
How do I get started?
As always, the best way to get started is to try the tools out yourself. Since the tools are all free, you need only create an account, log in, and start writing, editing, and sharing. Once you’ve completed these simple steps, how you choose to use the services will vary based on your needs.
I also recommend that when you’re trying out the web office tools, try and think about their potential applications for your own work - particularly if you’re working in partnership with colleagues on a funding bid, strategy document, meeting minutes, etc. Once you are comfortable with how they work, you will likely start to see potential everywhere or how they could be applied for teaching and learning situations.
For more information, see part two of this article: “Comparing Web Office Products”
- Comparing web office products
- Web Based Services - Tales of the Unexpected
- Web Office Tools - The Virtual Office
Published: 19th March 2007
Copyright © 2007 Lasa Information Systems Team