July 4, 2008
Hit Me With Your Best Doc
By Mattison, David
Document-Sharing Services on the Web File sharing has had a bad rap, but thanks to still image, video, and audio sharing services such as Flickr (http://vwvw.flickr.com - and even the Library of Congress is there), Google's Picasa [http://picasa.google.com], YouTube [http://www.youtube.com], and Odeo [http://odeo.com], file sharing is now a good thing. If it's your creation and you crave spreading the written, numeric, or presentation word around, a range of free services can help you. This activity is called document sharing and may or may not involve the ability to edit a document, regardless of its initial file format, written by you all alone online. You might also be able to collaborate on a document in real time with members or a group or team a la the wiki principle.
Due to space limitations, I've classified the growing number of services into two broad categories: document (file) storage, sharing, and searching services and document storage and editing services. The former do not contain any online document editing capability by a single individual or a group, while the latter feature the ability to store, share (publish), and edit documents online through a web-based interface. I've placed some of the project management web applications in the document storage, sharing, and searching category: Although these services may include the word "office" in their names, some do not offer basic online office functionality, relying on local PCs for that capability. Since the services in either category rely on a web browser and most work in either a Windows or Mac environment, you do not normally need to download any kind of client software. If you don't have a recent version of the Flash player, however, you might have to download it, as well as various kinds of Microsoft ActiveX controls and the Google Gears browser extension that lets you work offline with some of these services. For the services touting Microsoft Office compatibility, I found that Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser appeared to "play best with others." Complete cross-browser functionality may remain an elusive and unreachable goal for these services.
I've limited my listings of online document-editing and -sharing services to those that are free or offer a free trial, usually of 30 days' duration. In some cases, even without a subscription plan, you might be able to continue using a service after your trial period expires.
Document Storage, Sharing, and Searching: From Google Apps to Project Apps
These services want your documents and they want to index them so others can find them. If you're overly anxious about sharing or exposing your intellectual property to a third party, these services may not necessarily be for you.
I remember not too long ago in internet time when finding free file storage for more than 10MB was difficult. With the costs of hard drive technology dropping and storage density increasing, it's no wonder the current minimum for free file storage is in the 1-2GB range. Of course there's a trade-off, as you might find yourself having to agree to a copyright license not in your best interest. But if you're no Picasso, George Lucas, or Madonna, perhaps that won't really matter to you.
Google Docs, Google Apps, and Google Sites
I blame myself for Google gobbling upWritely.com. I blogged about Writely on Aug. 3, 2005, and by March 2006, the media were talking about Google's first foray into online document editing through its acquisition of Writely. (How's that for market power?!) Writely evolved into the web word processor component of the free Google Docs service [http://docs.google.com]. The two other components are a spreadsheet editor and a presentation editor. You need a Google account to access the service. To tour the beta offering, go to http://www.google.com/ google-d-s/intl/en/tourl.html.
One intriguing aspect of Google Docs is its ability to create content you can post to one of any six different major blog hosting providers or to virtually any blogging application you host yourself. It supports the three major APIs: Blogger, MetaWeblog, and Movable Type. Other document storage and sharing services such as FilesAnywhere [http://www.filesanywhere.com] also support publishing a document to a blog.
Now here's where it gets really intriguing: Google Docs is also a component of Google Apps [http://www.google.eom/a/help/ intl/en/ index.html], the awkward brand name for Google's web-based and hosted software services designed for "businesses, schools and organizations." In order to sign up and use Google Apps, you have to be an administrator of a domain name, have an email account through an existing domain name (which has security implications), or purchase a domain name through Google. If you own a domain name, Google will want to change the DNS record in order to prove your ownership. If you're unsure about the impact, as I was, then use an email address at your domain - but only if you are also the administrator - to get started.
In early March 2008, Google launched Google Sites [http:// www.google.com/a/help/intl/en/users/sites.html] as a new service within Google Apps. According to Erik Arnold's March 6, 2008, Information Today Newsbreak story, "Let the Battle Begin: Google Apps Versus Microsoft SharePoint" [http://newsbreaks. infotoday.com/ nbReader.asp?ArticleId=41155], Google Sites represents "the integration of JotSpot, a web-based wiki provider that Google purchased more than a year and a half ago. The notso-subtle goal of Google Sites is to move document creation and collaboration into Google's ever-growing infrastructure."
Google claims these benefits on its Google Sites page:
Google Sites is the easiest way to make information accessible to people who need quick, up-to-date access. People can work together on a Site to add file attachments, information from other Google applications (like Google Docs, Google Calendar, YouTube and Picasa), and new free-form content. Creating a site together is as easy as editing a document, and you always control who has access, whether it's just yourself, your team, or your whole organization. You can even publish Sites to the world. The Google Sites web application is accessible from any internet connected computer.
File uploads are limited to 10MB, while each basic (free) Google Apps account gets up to 10GB of storage in Google Sites. Email storage runs around 7GB for the basic and education editions of Google Apps. The free education edition is only available to "accredited not-for-profit K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and registered US nonprofits." You can acquire additional storage space by purchasing the "premier" edition for $50 per year.
While the "battle" between Google and Microsoft may entertain some and potentially harm others through the economic fallout, I hope it will not reach the point of disrupting the evolution of document-sharing services and that peaceful co-existence at the document level will continue as the norm.
Scribd [http://www.scribd.com] seems like a remarkable, too-good- to-be-true-service-if-it's-not-Google. Based in California and only started in 2006 by Trip Adler, Jared Friedman, and Tikhon Bernstam, Scribd boasts that "over 10 million people a month view documents on Scribd." Most of the document formats you can upload to Scribd through a free account are text-based in one form or another. As with YouTube, Scribd converts these different formats into a Flash- based viewer it calls iPaper, launched in mid-February 2008. Scribd also produces a limited number of document export formats. One advantage of iPaper is that you can "monetize" your documents by embedding ads into them from which you collect some of the revenue via PayPal payment from Scribd. You can also embed documents you've uploaded to Scribd into your own website using the free iPaper viewer. iPaper is also part of a larger set of tools and services called the Scribd Platform, essentially an API for working with Scribd and your own websites. iPaper is a remarkable contribution to the web world and third-party services that also offer document- sharing services, such as Fliiby [http://fli iby.com] and Box.net [http: / /box.net. You can share and search but not directly edit the online documents you find at Scribd.
If you doubt where document storage and sharing services are going - and you probably shouldn't with Google already there - then take a look at Adobe's offering. The company announced a new service on Sept. 1, 2007, called Adobe Share (announcement referenced on ReadWriteWeb [http://www.readwriteweb. com/archives/ adobe_announces_document_shari.php], currently accessible through the Adobe Labs site [http://labs.adobe. com/technologies/share]). AccordingtoReadWriteWeb, "Adobe is targeting small businesses and students with this product, and will release paid upgrades for it in time. The IGB free version is full featured, however." The Adobe Labs Share page states, however, that Share is "a free web-based service that allows you to easily share, publish and organize your documents." Share began in open beta, but a free Adobe ID is now required.
I came across a few other document-file-sharing services worth looking at if you want to blend some kind of online document editing capability with your file storage:
* Docstoc [http://www.docstoc.com] is looking for "professional" documents or legal, business, technical, and educational forms or documents that individuals and organizations wish to share. According to a New York Times article, "Storing Information for Profit" by James Flanigan (March 5, 2008), Docstoc was founded by 20- something entrepreneur Jason Nazar in the fall of 2007. Docstoc is Scribd with a focus. * Driveway [http: / /www.driveway.com] offers a free 2GB storage account and the ability to edit documents through Zoho. The max file size per upload is 500MB. Sharing is optional.
* FilesAnywhere [http: / /filesanywhere.com] is one of the few file storage and sharing services that provides you with optional SSL security during login. The basic free plan lets you store up to IGB, with an important catch: You have to keep your account active by logging in once at least every 60 days. Your downloads are also limited to 1OMB per file, but there's no limit on the file size you can upload. As with a few other applications I examined, FilesAnywhere includes Facebook integration. FilesAnywhere also includes Zoho integration so you can edit documents or spreadsheets. Photo editing is supported. Of the several file storage and sharing services I looked at, FilesAnywhere by far contained the most features.
* OmniDrive [http://www.omnidrive.com] is a cross between a file storage and sharing service and, through its integration of Zoho (see the next section), an online office. The basic free service gives you IGB of storage. If you prefer a client-based service, OmniDrive has free Windows and Mac clients. This differs from OmniDrive's WebDAV support, which is only available through an annual subscription plan; the premium service offers more features and space. OmniDrive also promotes its newWebFS (Web File System) protocol as an "open standard for the exchange of files and data."
Run Your Office and Project on the Web: The Promise of Online Collaboration
While most online office services offer some kind of compatibility with one or more components of Microsoft Office, the only vendor that can offer true compatibility is Microsoft. The free Microsoft Office Live Workspace [http://workspace.officelive.com] is based on SharePoint. You get up to 500MB of storage space for any kind of document-based file and share these or your workspace with up to 100 people. Microsoft also offers Microsoft Office Live Small Business [http://smallbusiness.officelive.com], a web hosting service targeted to small businesses. As with the document storage, sharing, and searching services, the online office and project management applications surveyed here often include various ways of sharing and/or publishing documents, which might mean exposing them to a search engine.
Zoho [http://www.zoho.com] is a complete online office offering from AdventNet, Inc.; its main business is network management. According to its FAQ, Zoho offers free versions of all its software including "our business oriented applications such as CRM. This will never change. You can always have access to our free or 'personal editions' Each of our fee-based applications have different pricing models generally charged with a credit card on a monthly basis. ... In addition to our standard pricing, we do offer volume based discounts for larger customers and discounts to educational and non- profit organizations."
Once you create an account for one of the basic office services such as Zoho Writer, Zoho Sheet, Zoho Show, or Zoho DB, among others, you can access the 10 services through a single sign-on. In Zoho Writer, all of these, except for Zoho DB, are found in the Switch To menu. Even after creating a Zoho database, signing out, and going back in, I still couldn't access it from the Switch To menu in Zoho Writer. Zoho DB, on the other hand, let me switch to the nine other Zoho apps. Switching between these web apps opens a new browser window, which I found a problem. At some point I imagine the magic of Ajax (Web 2.0) programming technology will permit all these services to operate within the same browser window.
Some of the services, including Zoho Writer, are still in beta. The editor in Zoho Writer is very powerful and reminds me of some of the HTME editors, which is what it is, I've used on various open source content management systems. Beyond the editor, other useful features in Zoho Writer include a versioning (History) function and the ability to digitally sign a document through third-party partner EchoSign [http://www.echosign. com]. You can print a document as a PDF file or export it to a variety of text formats, including HTME. The import options are equally impressive and not just limited to your local PC, as you can pull in a document or three different graphics file formats (.jpg, .gif, .png). You can share documents by email and give your recipient the ability to edit the document or publish and publicly share your document. You can find a variety of document templates at the Zoho Writer Templates library. Should you want to go offline with Zoho Writer, you will need to either download a Google Gears browser extension or the Zoho Microsoft Office plug-in. The latter lets you save Word documents or Excel spreadsheets directly to the corresponding Zoho app.
In addition to the standard suite of office software - word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, collaborative email Zoho also offers a wiki, note taker, project management, CRM, web conferencing, database tools, a task planner, and a chat service. Zoho also has a mobile edition for the Apple iPhone and phones with Windows Mobile. There are even online test and poll-creation tools called Zoho Polls andZoho Challenge. Probably the most fascinating and challenging, especially to Google, Zoho app is Zoho Creator [http://creator.zoho.corn], which lets you "create customized database applications easily." Google take note: You need a database and web application creation tool for your Google Apps lineup. Once it's out of beta mode, according to the FAQ, Zoho Writer will limit your online storage to 1GB. The Zoho Virtual Office Online Collaboration Suite [http://vo. zoho.com] already indicates that free, individual accounts receive IGB of storage.
Still rough around its beta edges, ThinkFree Online [http:// www.thinkfree.com] bills itself as the "free online alternative to Microsoft Office." As of mid-March 2008, it could only handle three kinds of documents: text, spreadsheet, or presentation. Document storage is IGB and the max file size for uploading a document 10MB. The document editor in ThinkFree Online is Java-based. While it could open my Microsoft Word document in the Quick Edit mode, it couldn't do so in the Power Edit mode. Even for a Quick Edit of a simple document, the formatting was not terribly accurate, as it would insert a space before a comma or a period. When you in the document editor's View screen mode, which formats as WYSIWYG, you can switch between Quick Edit and Power Edit. You can collaborate with others through ThinkFree and, if blank screens intimidate you, use a searchable, shareable document library for text files, spreadsheets, and presentations called ThinkFree Docs [http://www. thinkfreedocs.com]. ThinkFree launched a revamped service in early April 2008. The Java-based "Quick Edit" was to have been superseded by a self-contained WYSIWYG XHTME editor.
Created by Kevin Warnock and offered through his company Silveroffice, Inc., gOffice [http://goffice.com/goffice6.aspx] offers a "classic" web office version with four components: a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation tool, and desktop publishing. Though rudimentary and with limited outputs - PDF or HTME for word processing-founder Warnock claims his product was the first of the web office suites. While some of the classic version pages of gOffice say, "Free browser-based online office suite," when I went to register for an account, I learned the service is no longer free and costs 99 cents a month payable by credit card. The press and blog buzz page told me that the service had introduced a subscription model in April 2007. The site has about 50,000 users and the storage limit is 10,000 documents per account.
Cisco Systems, Inc. through its subsidiary WebEx. offers WebOffice [http: / /www.weboffice.com]. The company states it has between 300,000 to more than 350,000 customers worldwide. Designed for the small to medium business, you can take WebOffice out for a 30-day free trial without giving out your credit card number. WebOffice's primary purpose is to help you collaborate with your office team, wherever they may be. After the initial set up screen, you're given the option of adding up to five team members and naming an administrator. Members are limited to 1OMB of document storage and each mailbox has a IGB limit; you can purchase additional storage space for both. Total storage of 250MB for up to five members costs $59.95 per month. In addition to a calendar, task lists, discussion forums, email, contacts list, and voting or polling, WebOffice also offers an impressive database creation tool with several useful templates, the ability to track expenses, and an online meeting environment available only by subscription beginning at $249.75/ month. That conference price excludes audio conferencing, for which you must budget an additional $0.20/minute. Given that this is project- and team-oriented software, I found it odd that WebOffice does not appear to have spreadsheet or presentation applications. Document editing requires you to download a file from your WebOffice file library to your local PC and then upload the edited version back to its file storage space.
HyperOffice [http://www.hyperofflce.com] combines basic office functionality for yourself and collaborative work with a team. HyperOffice reports it has 150,000-plus customers. Your personal office area includes email, a calendar, contacts database, task list, personal hyperlinks, a notes editor, reminders, a Google or Yahoo! search tool (some individual components can also be searched), and a file library or document manager to upload and manage files and documents. Group or collaborative features consist of a calendar, contacts, files, project and task management, discussion area, voting, hyperlinks, and the ability to create and edit web pages through a Publisher component. Some of the collaborative features letyou import and export existing data. HyperOffice also claims to provide "100% of Microsoft Exchange's functionality and more" with the ability "to switch back and forth between Outlook and any browser." HyperOffice has not yet, however, extended its Microsoft Office compatibility into the realm of document editing. In order to edit uploaded documents, HyperOffice must download them back to your PC for local editing. The only online document editing ability is through the Web Publisher's HTML editor. Effectively, HyperOffice did not deliver, as of mid-March 2008, a collaborative, real-time, document editing environment. HyperOffice also recommends installing its WebDAV client called HyperDrive. However, it claims to upload and download files much faster through the HyperOffice file manager. Once you've activated the group space, you can move data such as links and documents between your personal and group spaces. CentralDesktop [http:// www.centraldesktop.com], which claims more than 100,000 users, lets you try the complete range of its service for 30 days through instant sign-up (no email validation) with up to 25MB of storage. After 30 days you can subscribe through mix-and-match options or remain with the very limited free version of just the project management workspace. The two core parts of the service are project management workspaces and web meetings. The former provides you with a full range of tools, including HTML document and spreadsheet editors, wiki pages (the CentralDesktop FAQ says it's a "wiki- enabled collaboration tool"), blogs, discussion forums, calendars (with Outlook Calendar integration), task lists, and project meetings. The only method I could find for getting a document I created to myself was email; I did not see any obvious way to export or save a document to my local PC. A reports feature accommodates a variety of information needs on your project activities; you can also create a backup of any one or all of your workspaces. CentralDesktop provides RSS feeds and, through the free Attensa RSS plug-in for Microsoft Outlook, you can also keep yourself informed about upcoming activities in your workspaces. The web meetings utility allows you to schedule, host, or join an online meeting. In the 30-day free trial, you are limited to one concurrent meeting room with a maximum of 10 participants.
Individual Collaborative Office Apps
I came across a few free, stand-alone, collaborative web applications that mirror their Microsoft Office counterparts:
* In addition to Google Docs and Zoho Writer, two other simple text editors include WideWORD [https://wideword.net] created by Pelle Braendgaard, which uses the Textile syntax for document markup, and Writeboard [http://www.wnte board.com], from 37signals, the company also responsible for the subscription-based project management web application Basecamp [http://www.basecamphq.com], which also uses the Textile syntax.
* Spreadsheets are well represented through free services such as Google Docs, Zoho Sheet [http://sheet.zoho.com], EditGrid [http:// www.editgrid.com, NumSum [http://numsum.com], andNumbler [http:// numbler.com].
* Google Docs and Zoho Show [http://show.zoho.com] should be at the top of your list to check out. Other web applications for creating and sharing online presentations are Spresent [http:// www.spresent.com], a Flash-based tool for creating and sharing web presentations; Thumbstacks [http://www.thumbstacks.com] for very simple presentations; Opera Show, part of the Opera web browser [http:// www.opera.com/support/tutorials/operashow]; Eric A. Meyer's S5 [http://meyerweb.com/eric/tools/s5] inspired by Opera Show; Dave Raggett and the W3C's HTML Slidy [http://www.w3.org/2006/05/Slidy- XTech], which is functionally similar to Opera Show and S5; and SlideShare [http: / /www.slideshare.net], which is like Flickr for still images or YouTube for videos, only SlideShare distributes PowerPoint-style presentation software. If you're into rich media presentations, for starters check out Eyespot [http://eyespot.com], founded in 2005 by David Dudas and Jim Kaskade, and Empressr [http:/ /www.empressr.com] from Fusebox, which bills itself as the "first online application that lets you create, manage and share rich media presentations online."
Store, share, search, and collaborate - the possibilities are endless depending on your needs. If you want a little extra storage space because you've reached the maximum on your web hosting plan, try and find a free file storage service that won't delete your files due to a few weeks of inactivity and offers at least IGB of space. You should also make sure the service has been around for a while. But whatever you do, keep copies of whatever you leave there in case the service disappears or becomes inaccessible. If security is a major concern, remember that free does not always mean secure in the form of a secure server login (SSL) or data encryption while transmitting or storing files. Except for extreme niche applications such as Wuala [http://wua.la/en/home.html], security will usually cost extra through a paid service plan.
Google Sites represents Google's integration of the JotSpot wiki service it acquired in 2006 with its Google Apps service. This is a faux site I built just to create this screen shot.
FilesAnywhere, an impressive file sharing service, includes integration with Zoho Writer and Zoho Sheet.
Charlene Li's presentation on the future of social networks is just one of thousands of documents you will find on Scribd that you can readily share through various social networking tools.
Zoho Writer is the free word processor component of Zoho.com's rich online office offering.
ThinkFree Online provides a well-organized and clean interface for document creation and editing.
The wiki-based CentralDesktop includes not only the elements of other project-centric web applications such as WebOffice and HyperOffice but also HTML document and spreadsheet editors.
The author's opinions are not necessarily shared by his employer.
Access Services Archivist
Royal British Columbia Museum
Copyright Information Today, Inc. Jun 2008
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