This is part two of the “Back to School with the Class of Web 2.0″ series. In this article, I will cover web-based alternatives to desktop office applications including: word processing, presentations, diagrams, spreadsheets, and more. If you are new to the series and want to learn more about educations tools, I recommend reading Part 1 of the series. If you enjoy Part 1 and Part 2, I hope you will stick around for Part 3 where I will cover real cases of Web 2.0 used in classrooms around the world.
There are a few office applications I have left out in this series. First, many would argue email applications are part of an office suite, and I agree to that, but I have not included a category for them in this post because most colleges and schools provide email to students as is. If I were to recommend one, I’d say Gmail for its features and offered space. I have also left out database applications as I don’t feel they are essential to a student unless they are majoring in computer science or related, in which case they would likely use Microsoft Access or a school DBMS (Database Management System) – not to mention that the Web 2.0 database applications are more geared towards a completely different ball park. Additionally, I have decided to leave out imaging and project management applications.
This article has three sections to it: “Office Applications,” “Web-based Word Processors Compared,” and “Are Web-based Office Applications Ready for Education?” Also, be sure to check out the comparison grid, or feature matrix, in the “Web-based Word Processors Compared” section.
Red Arrows indicate personal favorites with education in mind.
Products may appear more than once if related to multiple categories.
Part 2: Office Applications
- Writely: Online Word Processor allowing users to create and edit documents collaboratively online, import Word documents, publicly or privately share documents, publish to a blog, and more.
- Zoho Writer: Similar to Writely, Zoho Writer is an Online Word Processor where you can create, share, and collaborate on documents. Users can also publish to a blog, import and export documents, and make documents public.
- Writeboard: Writeboard is a collaborative writing tool where users can write, share, revise, and compare their documents online with others. It is not an advanced system featuring a WYSIWYG editor, Ajax, and flashy effects, but that’s what I like about it. Writeboard is a personal favorite of mine and as a matter of fact I am using it right now for this very post. It includes version control with text comparing and is great for essays and writeups of any kind. More on Writeboard.
- ThinkFree Write: ThinkFree Write is a free word processor that, at this time, is probably the closest you can get to an online version of Microsoft Office with features and appearance in mind. You can perform formatting options, create tables, add a header/footer, and spell check as you type just like your average desktop word processor. Pretty impressive. You can also open and save Microsoft Word and OpenOffice documents as well as share documents online with others. Note: There are two versions of ThinkFree Write: Quick Edit (Ajax-based) and Power Edit (Java-based).
- AjaxWrite: Lightweight word processor that can read and write Microsoft Word and other standard document formats, display multiple documents at once in tabs, and feature basic formatting. However, feature wise, it just does not cut it for me. What I do like about it is that it’s very quick and there are no signups – get in and get out.
- Zoho Show: Web-based presentation tool to create, edit, publish, and show presentations. Zoho Show is very feature packed allowing users to create presentations full of text, images, shapes, lists, and pre-formated content templates. Users can also import their existing PowerPoint and OpenOffice presentations, view presentations online, and export as HTML.
- Thumbstacks: With Thumbstacks, create and share web-based presentations over the web. Thumbstacks provides a clean and easy to use presentation builder, although not as feature rich as Zoho Show, and allows users to export presentations in HTML format.
- SlideShare: Great new service, currently available by invitation only, that consists of an YouTube-like site for Powerpoint and OpenOffice presentations displaying presentations through Flash players. Users can even place the Flash presentation players on their own websites. I’ve been waiting for a site similar to this for some time now; perfect for students and educators wanting to store presentations online for sharing and receiving feedback.
- Empressr: Empressr is an Ajax and Flash-based service that lets you create and share presentations online. One advantage on the feature side is that it uses Flash and Ajax rather than HTML and Ajax allowing you to add more media then other tools including audio and video, although I personally prefer HTML presentations.
- ThinkFree Show: Excellent Java-based presentation application that feels much like Microsoft Powerpoint. Create rich presentations and play them through the online editor or by graphic. You can also save your presentations for viewing in Microsoft Powerpoint and share them with others online.
Diagrams and Mind Mapping
- Mayomi: Mayomi is a free flash-based mind mapping tool that lets you map out ideas, projects, research topics, or anything else that can be dug into. Great for students when it comes to writing essays. More on Mayomi.
- Gliffy: Draw and share diagrams online using Gliffy. You get all of your basic functionality that you would in an offline diagram application but with a few extra bonuses like working online collaboratively and dynamic publishing of diagrams. Create flow charts, floor plans, technical diagrams, and more.
- Google Spreadsheets: Create, store and share spreadsheets on the web. Includes real time editing and chatting with others as well as import and export options. Google Spreadsheets is my web-based spreadsheet application of choice, although on the negative side, it does not provide chart functionality.
- EditGrid: “An online spreadsheet featuring real-time-update and extensive collaboration features.” EditGrid has support for more then 500 functions, includes remote data update, access control, and more.
- iRows: Create and share spreadsheets online, create charts, include dynamic information, and upload and save Excel, CSV and OpenDocument files. More on iRows.
- Zoho Sheet: “Zoho Sheet is a web based alternative to traditional spreadsheet applications, like MS Excel or Openoffice Calc. It provides basic spreadsheet functionalities coupled with web based features like sharing, tagging, publishing and more.”
- Num Sum: Possibly the first web-based spreadsheet service launched that introduced social spreadsheets where users can tag their spreadsheets and share with others.
- ThinkFree Calc: Java-based spreadsheet application that has the look and feel of Microsoft Excel. Users can share their spreadsheets and work on them collaboratively online.
- Numbler: Simple online spreadsheet solution with great real-time editing and chatting with multiple users. Nice and clean interface although not as feature packed as some of the other options.
- 30 Boxes: 30 Boxes is an online calendar that I feel works great for students due to its simplicity and sharing options. It also features RSS subscription to automatically populate the calendar with feed items on the day they were published – great for tracking teacher blogs and academic feeds. Furthermore, users can access their calendars on the go with 30 Boxes Mobile.
- Google Calendar: A bit on the advanced side, but once you get used to it, you’ll find it’s quite powerful. Users can create multiple calendars; view by day, week, or month; share their calendars with the web or a select few; subscribe to other shared calendars; and more. More on Google Calendar.
- Spongecell: “A free and easy to use calendar for you and your friends.” Features a simple drag and drop interface where events can be created and viewed on calendars in multiple formats. Users can also share their calendars with others.
- CalendarHub: CalendarHub offers a great service for personal and group use offering a simple drag and drop interface, calendar subscribing, reminder notification, and more. More on CalendarHub.
- Scanr: Scanr is an interesting product great for those without access to a scanner. Scan, copy and fax whiteboards, documents, and business cards with just a camera phone or digital camera! Great for research at the library and creating a backup of printed class handouts on the computer.
- eFax: Although this may not be that useful for students, I felt it’s worth mentioning. eFax lets users receive faxes through email for free simply by providing them with a temporary phone number that senders can use to send their documents. eFax is free for receiving faxes but will cost you to send them out (eFax Plans).
- Gmail: Generally, most colleges and schools provide email, but if you’re an High School student, chances are you weren’t given one. I’d personally recommend Gmail for its features and space, however you may have trouble using it in schools due to its chat functionality.
- Google Page Creator: Users can create quality sites without learning HTML or any other technical knowledge, although they can use them if they wish. You get 100MB of space for yoursite.googlepages.com and can upload files and attach gadgets to your pages. Here’s an example site I created in just a minute with Part 1 of this series. Dead simple, but presentable.
- Zoho Creator: Can’t find a product that does what you want? Try creating your own. Zoho Creator allows its users to structure a database, insert and connect data, and publically share it with others.
Web-based Word Processors Compared
Throughout my educational career as a student, I know that the program I spent most of my time in was Microsoft Word. In college, every teacher requested that we type our assignments up and send them to their email address so they can “easily” download, review, and email back with changes. It’s a process, and it works, but with today’s technology and offerings, things can be much simpler. Imagine one location where students compose and publish papers accessible online and a place where teachers can collaborate with their students without the need to download or email a single document.
After compiling a list of online word processors for this series, I decided to seperately research each one to find if they are ready for educational use. I realize that services like Writely are excellent for users like me, using it to compose and collaborate on documents for Parallel (my company), but what about students when it comes to assignments that are required to follow certain formatting? Can these web-based word processors handle it?
Time to put web-based word processors to the test! First, I created an account over at Competitious to easily list common word processor features and view a comparison grid displaying features from each product. I then went through features of Writely, Zoho Writer, AjaxWrite, and ThinkFree Write (Online). After viewing the results, it was clear which were capable of following common writing and paper guidelines.
Page & Text Formatting
Student papers don’t require too much formatting, but there are guidelines and structures to be followed – for example, MLA Formatting on research papers. Will we be using web-based products to work on these kind of papers? I can’t say, but I would imagine that we would need to if there are hopes for entire web office suites in the future. During my High School and College career, I’ve had to change document margins, add headers and footers, double space sentences (or often 1.5 space), and enable page numbering. Are web-based word processors capable of such formatting? To find out, I have tested each one looking for text formatting options and page formatting options. Can users bold text, add paragraph styles (Heading 1, Paragraph, Blockquote), double space lines, make page breaks, and add page numbers to the header of each page?
Writely and Zoho Writer are similar in that they offer all of your basic text formatting options, including: bold, italic, paragraph styles (Normal, Heading, Paragraph), and line spacing, but lacked when it came to page formatting only allowing for page breaks. AjaxWrite fell behind when it came to paragraph styling, line spacing, and document formating. Lastly, ThinkFree passed with flying colors featuring text formatting options and page formatting options. It had margins, page breaks, page numbering, and even custom headers and footers. It’s practically Microsoft Word online in appearance and functionality.
I want in a word processor, in terms of functionality, spell checking, copy & paste, undo & redo, find & replace, auto-save/backup, and at times, word count. These are functions that I use regularly when working on papers and I assume others as well. Fortunately, all the processors had these functions, except for Zoho Writer not having word count and AjaxLaunch without spell checking, backup options, or word count – didn’t even prompt me when “accidently” closing an unsaved document.
Collaborative Value and Sharing
One advantage is that these products are web based. You can access your documents anywhere at any time and work on them as you normally would. Being web-based also allows you to share documents with others and work on them collaboratively. Users can even work on documents together in real-time from different locations or even post to their blog.
Writely has five stars in this department making it very simple for anyone to publicly or privately share documents, tag documents, compare versions, add comments, subscribe to RSS, and best of all, collaborate in real-time. Zoho Writer had similar results, except I found it a little more confusing to use and had a rough time finding an RSS feed. AjaxWrite had no collaborative functionality or sharing options at all, though its purpose is to simply act as a word processor. Lastly, ThinkFree featured public sharing, tagging, version control, and commenting, but no real-time collaboration like Writely and Zoho.
Thanks to Competitious for their great service (expect a review soon), I was able to easily create and manage a Feature Matrix. Competitious does not offer exporting of the Feature Matrix at this time, but they have kindly allowed me to use it for this post.
The matrix covers formatting, document structure, functionality, document objects, collaboration, exporting, and importing. If you have any suggestions about this feature matrix, please feel free to pass it by me and I will change it. I tried to only include common features in word processors, so if you think something is missing that should be there, please let me know.
These applications are impressive, but not quite there yet. ThinkFree is the only one that was capable of producing an MLA formatted document with double spaced lines, 1-inch margins and headers with my last name and page number. The only problem I had with it though was the fact the interface was so similar to Microsoft Word (confusing and intimidating) and that is was Java-based. Writely on the other hand had an excellent interface that was very inviting with great collaborative features. Zoho Writer had similar results as Writely, but I found the interface to be a little confusing and I deeply missed the top menus you see in applications these days (File, Edit, View, Help, etc.) which made it harder to look for specific functionality. Finally, AjaxWrite did fair in my opinion, acting as a basic word processor but just didn’t cut it for me due to the lack of features.
Are Web-based Office Applications Ready for Education?
As you can tell by the compilation above, Web Office is nearing. But are these applications ready for any main-stream attention? Should we just drop the desktop counterparts and start using Web 2.0 (or Office 2.0) products? In my opinion, not yet, but we’re certainly getting closer to the possibility.
Who knows when it will happen? Maybe in a couple years, or maybe five. What I do know is that right now, web-based office products are on a roll with new enhancements week after week because of technology improving day after day. Not to mention, they’ve got some pretty convincing features to switch for already including collaborative editing, document sharing, online storage, and so on. Did I mention they’re free? At the same time, they lack some important functionality, such as: document formatting (margins, headers, footers, page numbering); adding sounds and video to presentations; and advanced spreadsheeting with charts and forms. Also keep in mind dependence on Internet connection and possible security issues.
All in all, I do not feel school systems or businesses should immediately jump on the Web 2.0 train, but I think it’s time they start considering it as an option and try some of the solutions it has to offer. Try some of the applications for a week or two and find if they work for you. If your a teacher, see if your class prefers writing in the friendly and social Writely, or the intimidating and feature packed Microsoft Word. Some teachers are already doing it (you will see real cases of this in Part 3 of the series). Why not you?