Online Alternatives to Microsoft Office

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I’m with Galen when he gives us five reasons to ditch Outlook for Google Apps. I’ve been using Gmail for a couple of years now and it has become my primary method of collecting, sorting and replying to my various email addresses. In fact, I find that I really only use my desktop email client (Apple’s Mail on my home iMac) for keeping an offline archive of all my conversations these days.

More recently, Google’s calendar app has replaced my Outlook calendar on my work PC, mainly since it allows me to access it wherever I can get an Internet connection. The only missing piece of the puzzle here is I haven’t found a simple way to sync Google Calendar with my phone (unfortunately, gCalSync doesn’t work on my phone, though it may work on yours.)

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So now that Google is offfering its connectivity services to businesses, does that mean it’s time to replace your entire Office Suite for an online alternative? Google certain thinks one day you might and has recently rolled out a free online spreadsheet and aquired an online word processor to push you in that direction.

But if the thought of surrendering all your corporate computing to the Mountain View giant gets you a little nervous, there are other online Office alternatives out there.

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Zoho is a company that I’ve been watching for a while and they have the most complete online office solution available right now, that rolls up a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software into a virtual office environment that also includes email, document sharing and calendar apps.

Zoho Writer was as functional as I needed it to be, as was Zoho Sheet and I was particularly impressed with Zoho Show, Zoho’s PowerPoint clone. Though all of the packages had some difficulty importing existing documents, especially heavily formatted Word documents or PPT decks – all were more than acceptable for new document creation.

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Chicago-based 37 Signals offers Writeboard as part of its critically acclaimed Basecamp project management platform, which I’ve had the opportunity to use on a number of occasions. It’s less of an Office replacement than Zoho, but it offers an amazing boost to productivity through its file sharing, scheduling and time tracking functions.

So, is it time to replace your entire Office Suite for any of these alternatives? Well, the answer is, it depends. Online office suites are still very much in the development stage. Their biggest plus is that offer an unparalleled environment for people to share, work and collaborate on projects. Large brokers would probably see little return on switching away from the Office platform, but a smaller more nimble outfit could potentially see huge prodictivity gains and substancial cost savings by switching.

Another intriguiging possibility would be to mirror some of the document sharing and editing functions found in these Office suites, and modify them for use in a more secure environment to draft, table and edit real estate contracts. The Buyer and Seller representatives could then collaborate virtually on drafting a final contract. This could save a lot of time and energy that’s currently spent standing at a fax machine.