Lately there's been an increasing buzz about Web Office, something which I've been writing about for some time now. Red Herring magazine wrote an article with the provocative headline 17 MS Office Killers. While it would be quite a story if Microsoft did get usurped by a Web-based Office, the reality is that Microsoft will - over time - move their Office suite online. Or at the least end up with a hybrid desktop/Web suite.
As Don Dodge noted, Microsoft has already made a start with Office Live. So nothing is going to 'kill' Microsoft Office, at least not in the next 5-10 years.
There are however viable alternatives to Microsoft Office springing up. Red Herring identified ThinkFree, Zoho and gOffice (not affiliated with Google) as 3 likely candidates to create a Web Office suite. Personally I think you can add Zimbra, JotSpot, Goowy and Google itself to that list - even though each of them has work to do yet to get to a full suite. However Aaron Ricadela from InformationWeek makes a good case for Google Office - he says it's on the way.
I'll be profiling all of them on Read/WriteWeb over the next couple of months. In the meantime here's a quick overview of some of the leading Web Office contenders right now...
You can't go past the Mountain View upstarts as the most likely to challenge Microsoft. Already they have Writely, a spreadsheet, Calendar, email and a few other Suite products under their wing. There are signs that Google is bringing it all together - the latest being the release of Google Apps for Your Domain (another poorly named Google product!). This offers private-labeled email, IM and calendar tools to small businesses. Om Malik is unimpressed, noting the potential privacy implications.
I liked Om's summary of the Web Office in a previous post: "Web Office should not be about replacing the old, but inventing the new web apps that solve some specific problems." Exactly! Dan Farber also has some interesting views on a Google office.
For my own views on what should make up a Web Office, check out Analysis: Google Spreadsheet and Web Office and Why you need a Web Office. Heck you may as well browse through my Web Office category on ZDNet! ;-)
Zoho is certainly building up its suite of products quite nicely. Recently it released Zoho Projects, an online project management tool. But rather than being directly competitive with Microsoft, if anything Zoho Project is taking aim at 37Signals. When I wrote a post entitled Web Office Suite: best of breed products in February, I identified Basecamp as the best-of-breed online project management tool. I said at the time that Basecamp "continues to set the pace. It features message boards, to-do lists, simple scheduling, collaborative writing, and file sharing."
Marshall at TechCrunch did a good review of Zoho Projects and this quote sums up the main differentiator: "The Zoho team told me that if Basecamp targets “the less is more crowd,” ZohoProjects will be feature rich."
Zoho will also soon release a single sign-on feature, so that the full range of Zoho products can be used more like a Web Office suite. Currently they're separate, although Zoho does have a product called Zoho Virtual Office, which is described as "groupware" and has things like email, IM and calendar.
ThinkFree is a Korean company which has also an impressive web-based Suite of products. ThinkFree bills itself as the "World's Best Web Based Office Suite". When I interviewed ThinkFree CEO TJ Kang in early May, he compared ThinkFree favorably with Sun Microsystems' OpenOffice (a desktop product). TJ Kang said they were more compatible with MS Office than OpenOffice - "especially with the spreadsheet and presentation". See also my follow-up post. In summary, I think ThinkFree is a solid Web Office suite offering - and like Zoho will continue to improve in functionality over time.
I recently wrote about Zimbra in my web mail overview. Currently they have a mini-suite of Web Office products. The Zimbra Collaboration Suite has email, contacts, group calendaring, word processing and spreadsheets. The latter two were added recently, as part of the launch of Zimbra Collaboration Suite (ZCS) 4.0. So Zimbra is continuing to bulk up their Web Office Suite credentials.
In my full review of Zimbra back in April, I was impressed that Zimbra is packed full of features. They have mashups and things like "Search Builder" and an RSS reader.
There is much more to explore on this topic, and more companies to mention, so over time I'll be investigating Web Office further on R/WW. For now it seems like Google is the one to watch, plus the reactions of Microsoft to that threat. But don't discount the small players, like Zoho and ThinkFree. There is a lot of innovation happening in this space, so it's not all about the big companies battling it out for dominance.