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"Web Based Office Suites"

A new type of office suite may soon change the way you do business. Most current varieties of office suites allow you to open and edit HTML files and even save them to web servers. They have stopped short of actually residing on the Internet, but that may change soon. Several start-up companies, including Desktop.com, myWeb OS.com and Halfbrain are competing for the lead in this new market segment. Although they are each approaching the solution differently, they are all reaching for the same goal: to transform the applications that you use every day into simple to use Internet based services.

These services are similar, but differ in the approach of the storage and retrieval of information. Some of the companies offer Web browser based access, while others use an application that resides on the local computer. These applications cache data locally and provide an interface to the online applications, which generally allows for superior application performance.

While the services differ in their approach to the user interface, they are offering basically the same types of applications, which duplicate many of the features of traditional office suites like Microsoft Office or Corel WordPerfect Suite. They include a word processor, a spreadsheet, a database, an address book, calendars, and basic e-mail functions. In addition to the actual applications, they include variable amounts of web space for saving files.

The companies, mostly small start-ups, are hoping to establish themselves before the larger companies that control the desktop office suites begin to make their moves. The largest players such as Corel, Lotus, and Microsoft have yet to offer these types of services. However, some large organizations have plans, or may have already opened sites of their own. Sun Microsystems, for instance, has partnered with Netscape and is set to open StarPortal, an online version of its cross-platform office suite, StarOffice 5.1. Sun is hoping to capitalize by releasing developer tools for their suite, which they hope will allow for many new applications to be released for their service.

Like most Internet services, these applications are free to end-users and are being supported by advertising. Interestingly, online office suites have taken a long time to get off the ground, but the concept is hardly a new one. Applix completed the first attempt at an online suite in 1996 but was unsuccessful. The single biggest reason why the new start-ups may succeed, where the previous attempts have failed, is the tremendous increases in broadband Internet connections.

There are certain inherent advantages to web based applications such as accessing files from anywhere. And while having all your files accessible from multiple PC's is a great feature, it does not come without disadvantages. The biggest of which happens to be performance. The software lags far behind equivalent desktop applications even while being accessed from high-speed connections like DSL. Another major problem is that the current version of the online suites will not work without an Internet connection. Although this seems obvious, it severely limits their usability. For instance, if you wanted to work on a document while traveling, you would be out of luck unless you could connect to the Internet.

The idea of an online office suite sounds great. Never needing to pay for an upgrade and the ability to access files from multiple PC's are certainly fabulous concepts. Because of the current limitations, however, I'm not certain of the long-term feasibility of this approach.

  - by Clayton Crooks

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