The Online Office

One definition of "Web 2.0" is the concept of an online computing platform. Instead of installing programs and running them on your computer, you simply go to a web site and use an online version of the program there.

The idea of using a program on the web instead of installing it on your computer has several advantages. It’s much easier, because you don’t have to install the software, worry about updates and security patches, and deal with conflicts between different programs. It’s less expensive, because most of the online tools are free. It makes it easier to collaborate, because a group of people could be set up to have access to the same files online. You wouldn’t have to worry about saving them in a place accessible to all, or moving them around on jump drives, or emailing the files back and forth. You simply edit the one copy that’s online.

The disadvantages are significant too. If you lose your Internet connection, you also lose your ability to use these online programs. There are also some privacy concerns. If you have a file stored on some organization’s server, it can be subpoenaed. If it’s on your home computer, a search warrant is required (which is more difficult to obtain). Still, in some applications, these tools make sense.

Writely is a web word processor. I’ve written about this before. Basically, you go to the site, and have a word processor in your browser. You can do most of the things you can in a normal word processor. Copy and paste works. You can change fonts and styles and sizes of text. It’ll handle tables and images. When you’re done, you can save it as a web page, a rich text file, or a Word document. You can also leave it where it is, and set up an RSS feed to it, so others can access it online.

Need a spreadsheet? Check out Numsum. It’s true that it won’t do everything that Excel does, but 95% of us don’t use all of the functions that are in Excel. It has the basic functions, and allows you to graph data. You can save it as a web page or a CSV file. Like Writely, it allows you to set up RSS feeds to the files, so you can share them easily with others.

In the trinity of Office applications, the presentation package is the third piece. The online version is Thumbstacks. It doesn’t have all of the bells and whistles of Powerpoint. There aren’t any slide transitions or animations, for example. But you can use their collaborative software to show your presentation to a group of people over the web in real time. Combined with Skype (which I’ll be writing about soon), you can do presentations and conferences entirely online.

We’re at the point where it’s very possible to be productive with just a web browser. When combined with online email and calendar tools, there aren’t a lot of things left that we can’t do on the web. These tools will make it easier to put inexpensive technology into the hands of the have-nots (Microsoft Office is more than $350.00, and we don’t need it anymore). Because we’re just using a web browser, it’s also going to be possible to use older computers longer. As long as they can get to the web, we can be productive with them.