Office software from the cloud is prized above all for its flexibility. Microsoft, Google, Zoho and others are doing battle for user affections in the cloud.Charles Glimm
Software as a Service (SaaS) has established a firm foothold. The latest Cloud Monitor from the German Federal Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media (BITKOM) shows that 54 percent of companies were using cloud services already in 2015. For the first time a majority of SMEs surveyed – 52 percent – also reported using cloud computing.
The public cloud grew even faster than the rest, according to the study, with a rise in use from 16 to 26 percent. Among the top SaaS applications are office programs (43 percent), a good step ahead of groupware (35 percent) and industry-specific applications (34 percent).
What convinces decision-makers, besides cost savings, is above all the great flexibility of these solutions, along with their scalability, availability and performance. Total costs according to other studies are around 30 percent lower than for a comparable purchase, in part because the acquisition of additional hardware can often be avoided. And SaaS solutions can be regularly updated without any need for in-house IT intervention, while direct contact with the provider ensures that any problems that arise are quickly resolved.
On the minus side are primarily security concerns, which remain widespread. In the BITKOM study, 58 percent of respondents worry that sensitive business data could be subject to unauthorized access, followed by 45 percent who fear general data loss. However, fear of productivity losses due to unstable internet connectivity is apparently no longer an issue. The number of companies describing their experiences with public cloud services as “completely positive” more than doubled compared with the previous year, to 42 percent.
An office suite generally includes the three pillars that are word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software. Some providers add to that an email client, calendar, contact management or additional apps.
The market for SaaS solutions in this area has been relatively static for years. Three main providers have established themselves here, namely Microsoft, Google and Zoho, while the newest arrival in the field is Apple, now targeting PC customers with its iCloud offer.
Microsoft has set the industry standard for office suites for years with MS Office. Its position is so strong that programs that are not compatible with Word, Excel and PowerPoint files cannot even make it to the starting line.
With Office 365, the Redmond-based firm has offered its classic suite under a subscription model for five years now. One particular feature of their model is that the applications can be installed in full on local devices, so users do not need a continuous online connection to run them. An internet connection is needed for activation, regular updates and to some extent upkeep of functions.
Along with the three core programs, Microsoft's offer includes the OneNote notetaking app, access to OneDrive storage and Outlook for email, contact and calendar management. The Business versions add Publisher for document design and the Enterprise editions include programmable database Access. Corporate offers also include active directory integration and expanded security features.
Subscription costs, depending on the scope of services and payment method, range from €4.20 to €34.40 per user per month. This pays for the full range of functions for the included applications on Mac and PC, apps for all mobile devices, generous cloud storage, support, and the latest updates as soon as they are released.
Word, for example, was recently augmented with a “Researcher” function that searches for online content directly in the document and inserts it, correctly formatted, with a single click. Outlook for PC received a new “Focused” tab in July that is intended to identify important e-mails more effectively from background clutter. This tab has apparently proven its worth in mobile versions already.
Office Online is also available as a pure “browser spin-off” at no cost. It offers reduced-function versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, which can be run using any standard browser. An activated Microsoft account is all that is needed to use Office Online.
Google is known for its tendency to enter the fray in every arena. With Google Docs and Google Apps, the California company has long had a complete online office suite in hand. The business variant is called Google Apps for Work and costs €4 or €8 per user per month, depending on the service scope.
Included in the basic package along with Gmail, Hangouts, Calender and Google+ services, are Docs word processing and apps for spreadsheets, forms and presentations. Business e-mail addresses with their own domain instead of the suspicious “gmail.com,” security and administrator functions, round-the-clock support and 30 GB of cloud storage are also part of the deal. Storage can be expanded to at least 1 TB per user in the more expensive version, which also includes expanded admin features, additional reporting functions, e-mail archiving and the Google Vault.
E-mail messages and official chats can be archived, searched and exported in the Vault. That means content can be stored beyond Google's standard periods, and separate guidelines can be established for individual units in the organization, specific timeframes or even specific terms. The E-Discovery search function can legally find data even in closed accounts, simplifying the work of legal departments in case of disputes.
All Google's office programs run in a browser, so no installation is required. Only Google Drive, as the administration and synchronization client, must be downloaded to the different end devices.
With Hangouts, the Google suite offers an integrated meeting space for teams. Every virtual room has space for up to 25 participants, so that even larger meetings can be held independent of location. Integrated screen sharing makes it easy to discuss even complex topics. Another plus: Meetings entered into Google calendar can be linked to Hangout, so that invited users can connect with just the click of a mouse.
With its apps Writer, Sheet, Show and Sync, SaaS specialist Zoho also offers a comprehensive office suite. The applications are kept fairly simple and run entirely in the user's browser. Data compatibility with the Microsoft standard keeps Zoho users in the loop.
Writer is the word processor, with a minimalist user interface just waiting for text to be entered. Numerous online templates are available to simplify tasks, although these models follow English-language standards and are therefore not necessarily usable in German work settings. The editor software can work with ODT, HTML and DOCX formats, and images can be directly imported from Flickr, Picasa and YouTube.
Sheet creates spreadsheets using an Excel-like interface. Data exchange is also supported, as Sheet can process XLS, XLSX, CSV and ODS formats. Simple graphs and pivot tables are also possible with this web app.
Show is a presentation program that offers an attractive user interface and extensive tools. It imports and exports PPT, PPTX and ODT file formats. Show can directly integrate images, videos and tweets from Flickr, YouTube and Twitter. Completed presentations can be streamed on websites or published in blogs and on social media.
All three apps also include collaboration functions that enable teams to work together on documents and presentations. The Zoho suite is rounded off with Sync, a desktop client for Windows, Mac or Linux that manages synchronizations between cloud and computer. The package costs USD 5 or USD 8 per user per month, where the more expensive version includes more storage and additional administrative functions.
The growing success of the three established online suites are convincing other providers to enter the field. As part of its Acrobat Document Cloud, Adobe offers Buzzword, an online word processor that stands out primarily for its ability to support collaboration between an unlimited number of people. The application runs on the Adobe server and is operated via a browser.
Apple is stepping things up with iWorks for iCloud. The Pages (word processing), Numbers (spreadsheet) and Keynote (presentation) apps, which until recently only ran on iOS devices, will now be compatible with Windows and other operating systems via browser connections.
Under the name Collabora Online Development Edition, or CODE for short, distributor Collabora and the OwnCloud open source project are offering the LibreOffice suite for online use. For now this is a beta version that can be downloaded in the form of a docker image, but a commercial offer is planned for the future.
And Korean manufacturer Hancom has its ThinkFree Office suite, which with its supplemental Online, Mobile and Server components can also become an online office in the private or public cloud.