by June 1, 2011 0 comments

Sufyan bin Uzayr, Freelance Writer, Graphic Artist and Photographer.

Every organization needs office suites. Some of you might have already started wondering why this article has begun by stating the obvious! Well, we are not going to explore traditional office suites that install on a system. Instead, we shall concentrate on their online counterparts, and discuss whether a business can really shift to them.

First, The Benefits

The same standard benefits offered by any cloud based application are also available in an online office suite. You can access your documents anywhere from a web browser, irrespective of your operating system or machine. This enables easier collaboration between employees, which is a boon if you have offices in multiple locations.

There are no upgrade/install/maintenance headaches in an online office suite, so you save on the costs that are otherwise spent managing traditional office suites. For instance, in a traditional office suite, you have to provision for sufficient storage on the local systems as well as on the network to install the traditional office suites and to store the documents that users generate from them. In an online office suite, you don’t have to do any of that, because it’s all stored in the cloud. Moreover, most online office suite providers offer backups, so you don’t even have to worry about that part. So by shifting to an online office suite, you save the cost of network storage as well as local storage on the end points.

You don’t have to worry about upgrading your systems’ RAM, HDD, etc to support an online office suite, because all you need is a web browser and Internet connectivity. Even a netbook, which is relatively less powerful than a notebook can run an online office suite.

So Can you Completely Switch?

The above benefits are not sufficient to take the decision of shifting to an online office suite. Other key things to consider are as follows:

Size of your organization: An office suite is the most frequently used application in an organization. Therefore, if the same thing is used online, then it has to be available all the time. For that, the organization has to ensure QoS from the bandwidth, ensure that it’s never down, etc. Moreover, if there are branch offices, then the same thing has to be done for those as well. So while you save on the cost in an offline office suite, you end up spending on bandwidth and QoS on the other.

Number of apps and their features: An office suite, as the name suggests, is a bundle of multiple applications, with the most common ones being word processor, spreadsheet, and database. Besides these also, most traditional office suites also come with many other apps for drawing, email, calendaring, etc. So this is another thing you’ll need to consider while shifting. Does the online office suite offer all the applications you currently use? Even more important is the aspect of features being used in an office suite. Most offices would have power users, say those in the MIS department, who use advanced features of an office suite, e.g. Pivot tables and advanced formulae in a spreadsheet, graphs and charts in a presentation, etc. In such a case, you may not be able to move those users to an online office suite. Plus, many organizations have customers and partners who work on specific office suites. In those cases, document sharing would become extremely difficult because of different formats. This even becomes an issue if you use a different traditional office suite inhouse than what your partners use.

Localication could be another issue. If you use office in languages other than English (e.g. Hindi), cloud-based options will surely not be your cup of tea. Even though localized interface is available in Zoho Office (many of its offices are in India, by the way), you will find yourself bereft of Hindi fonts, etc.

Bandwidth consumption — too much or too less? The bandwidth consumption stats of each cloud office suite differ (strange, but true). We decided to run a sample data usage test with each of them, for two hours of continuous usage. First we opened the word processor and spreadsheet software simultaneously of each office suite, one by one. The web browser used was Opera. Both wordprocessor and spreadsheet were used for one hour each. The word processing usage included typing of general text based documents (roughly 12 pages each), while spreasheet was used to generate charts and perform random calculations. Here, Google Docs consumed 9 MB of data usage (approx), Zoho Office swallowed 17 MB. Think Free, on the other hand, took 10.5 MB of data usage. The reason? Google Docs runs in a simple, no-frills manner, and in a way, so does Think Free Office. But Zoho Office provides a full-featured File Manager and makes enthusiastic use of scripts. You can therefore imagine the amount of bandwidth that would be consumed by your users.

Financial Viability — how true?

More often than not, you will find people telling you that cloud-based office suites are financially viable as compared to traditional office suites. Since cloud-based office suites run in your web browser (at least most of the time), they obviously consume negligible RAM and hard drive space as compared to traditional alternatives. This means lesser costs in terms of hardware. Also, since options like Think Free Office are entirely free (at least as of now), you won’t incur additional costs there either. But if you have several users and seek more space on the cloud, you will have to pay a monthly fee on a per user or disk space basis. If, for example, your organization has 100 employees, and you also purchase extra disk space, the annual cost incurred at Zoho Office will vary only slightly to that of a year’s licence fee for WordPerfect Office. But compared to MS Office, Zoho will fare way better, obviously (cost-wise). Plus, as you must have already noticed, in such a case using Open Source Office suites may prove to be a smart choice too.

With Google Docs, the story differs. If your organization has a website of its own, you probably already use Google Apps. In such a case, you already have Docs bundled for no extra fee. Else, registering for free at Google Docs is a breeze. Since Docs does not restrict sharing of documents between users, you can create multiple user accounts too.

Connectivity issues — what now?

Lets face it, there are bound to be Internet connectivity issues every now and then. So, does work come to a stand still if there is no Internet connectivity? Or can these office suites be used without internet? The answer is both yes and no.If there is no internet connectivity, you will obviously not be able to use most of the ‘cloud’ centric features, and that rules out the possibility of syncing data on the cloud or sharing files. But what about the word processing prowess? Well, Think Free Office has an ‘offline’ suite that install on your system and can be run as a traditional office suite. It can be used to sync data and settings with the online account as and when needed. On a similar tone, you may also consider using IBM Lotus Symphony Office Suite. While it is not cloud-based, it does have modules for creating data backups on the cloud (a paid feature).

If you are using Google Docs, however, you will technically be left without a word processor if your connection fails. There is no offline version yet. Even though Google Labs’ blog does list an offline version as one of the upcoming features, it does not provide a date of its release or availability.

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