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Web-based Alternatives to MS Office

We’re kicking off another blog series — this one’s on web apps, or applications that you run inside a web browser, like Firefox or Chrome, rather than as a standalone application. We’re focusing on ways that web apps can act as replacements for separate apps, in order to save you money, time, and most importantly, performance! Today we look at web-based alternatives to MS Office!

Microsoft Office is pretty much the industry standard. Anyone, anywhere wants a document from you, odds are they want a Word doc. If they want a spreadsheet, they want it in Excel format. And who uses another presentation app besides PowerPoint? Unfortunately, Microsoft Office often isn’t included in new PCs, or is only included as a feature-free starter edition or limited trial. And picking up Microsoft Office, unless you’re a student, can be really expensive!

Microsoft Office also takes up quite a lot of system resources, especially if you’re switching back and forth between Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. If you’re using a small netbook to compose your documents, having all those Microsoft products open at once can be quite taxing on its tiny processor.

That’s where web apps come in! There are terrific applications that work inside your favorite web browser that mimic and sometimes surpass the features in Microsoft Office. Best of all, they’re free.

The most popular of all these apps is Google Docs. (This very article is being composed in Google Docs.) Google’s Office-like apps are called Document, Presentation and Spreadsheet, each of which mimics Word, PowerPoint and Excel, respectively. You can upload Microsoft Office documents as well, but in order to edit them, you must convert them to Google Docs format. After you’re done, you can them export them again in Word format. All that importing and exporting can cause a loss of formatting, so Google Docs really isn’t designed to pull in your intricately formatted Office document and then push it back out exactly as you had it. On top of that, Google Docs doesn’t work with Track Changes, a crucial Office feature, at all.

Google Docs works best if it replaces the Office experience entirely, including comments, formatting, and all that fun stuff. One of the neatest things about Google Docs is that it saves your document “in the cloud” (on Google’s servers) and can be accessed anywhere you have an Internet connection. The other neatest thing is that you can easily share a Google Doc with anyone with a Google account (and let’s face it, who doesn’t have a Google account these days?). When you share your document, you can choose to allow the recipient to edit it or just view it. It’s entirely up to you.

Microsoft has a free, cloud-based version of Office called Office Web Apps. The drawback of Microsoft’s version is that it requires a Windows Live ID. Although Xbox 360 users undoubtedly have one of those, there’s a good chance that the general public doesn’t already have a Windows Live ID and would have to create one. Office Web Apps is relatively new, but the Office compatibility is better than Google Docs, for those that like their Office documents to stay exactly how they’re supposed to be. Office Web Apps, although free, is heavily ad-supported, while Google Docs seems mostly ad-free.

If you still can’t decide between them, here’s a terrific LifeHacker article that has a detailed comparison on alternatives to MS Office.

Whichever web-based solution you choose, you’ll be happy to be rid of Office — because having fewer applications open means your PC will run better. Eventually we may get to the point where our web browser replaces almost every other app you own. Check out future blog posts for more on that!

By the way, while you’re putting together that crucial spreadsheet at a location away from a power outlet (like me, writing this article in a Don Pablo’s Mexican restaurant), check out Battery Optimizer. You’ll want to get the most battery life you possibly can before you’re forced to save and shut down!

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