If you've been following technology news over the past few days, you probably know that Microsoft has released the latest version of its market-dominating Office software suite, Office 2007. Like the launch of a new Hollywood blockbuster, it's pretty hard not to notice the PR machine that swings into gear whenever Microsoft releases a product.
And yet, some analysts say Microsoft is already behind the eight-ball, and once again the threat comes from the Internet -- just as it did in 1995, when Netscape was the big challenger and Bill Gates wrote his famous memo about how the company needed to embrace the Internet. This time around, the threat comes from companies that are using the Web to offer things Microsoft doesn't.
One of those companies is Zoho, which has an entire suite of Web-based office services that either duplicate or extend many of the features offered by Microsoft's Office. Zoho isn't the only company active in this area -- Google has its Google Docs, Gmail and Google Calendar (not to mention billions of dollars to spend on marketing), and a company called ThinkFree also has an Office-style suite of applications that can either be used on the Web or downloaded and installed on a desktop PC.
Zoho, however, has been making some advances in one of the most crucial areas for Web-based software, and that is the ability to synchronize online documents and offline documents. This week, the company launched several plugins for Microsoft Office products that effectively allow users to save their desktop files in folders on Zoho's servers, where they can be retrieved and worked on from any PC with an Internet connection.
In other words, if you are working at the office on Microsoft Word or Excel (but not PowerPoint as yet), you can save that document on your desktop PC -- but at the same time you can also save it in a Zoho folder so that you can work on it at home or at another location. Zoho even offers desktop folder icons for its Web services so that you can simply drag a file over to a folder icon and have it automatically saved at Zoho.
As Amit Agarwal said on his blog, Digital Inspiration, "Effectively, you get [the] best of both the worlds - the speed and flexibility of editing inside a desktop program that you are so much used to plus the sharing and collabarative environment offered by an online service."
This is just the latest development for Zoho when it comes to bridging its Web-based office software and Microsoft's desktop products -- something Microsoft has said it is working on, but still hasn't rolled out in any real way. Not that long ago, Zoho launched something called Zoho QuickRead, which is a plugin or add-on that works with both Internet Explorer and Firefox. When a user comes across a Word document on the Web or in their Web-based email, they can simply click a button on their toolbar and read it without having to download it and then open it with Microsoft Office.
Zoho has also released an API, or application programming interface, for its products, which means that other companies -- online storage providers such as Box.net, Carbonite or Mozy, for example -- can easily build support for Zoho's services into their own products. In that way, Carbonite could offer a service package that included integration with Zoho so that all of an individual or small business's documents would be stored on Carbonite's servers whenever they were saved.
Using a Web-based Office-style service such as Zoho or ThinkFree is not going to suit everyone's purposes. In some cases -- such as those involving heavily-formatted or specialized Word or Excel documents -- a Web-based service will not be able to save or export a document in exactly the same way as a Microsoft program would (which is why ThinkFree also offers a more complete downloadable version of its products). But for the vast majority of simple word-processing and spreadsheet tasks, such services are more than adequate.
One of the biggest benefits of online software like Zoho Writer and Google's Writely is that you can collaborate with others on a document a lot more easily. So if you need to plan a soccer or hockey schedule, or put together a menu for an event or even work on a project with a partner, online services make it easy to do so without having to email Word documents or Excel spreadsheets to all the participants and then wait for their changes.
And with the synchronization features that Zoho has just launched, you can use both your desktop software and online services seamlessly without having to choose between the two.