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Surviving on free Web-based services alone

Life without Microsoft Office? A reporter tries to spend a week relying only on free Web-based software and services for everyday business tasks.
A box for the Microsoft Office software suite is shown at center, flanked by screens from CalendarHub, left, a web-based calendar program, and OpenOffice, right, a free suite of software.Ted S. Warren / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For Microsoft Corp., 2005 was the year the big bad Web came calling. Again.

A decade after Microsoft counterattacked to beat Netscape in the Web browser wars, the company finds itself surrounded yet again by competitors looking to leverage the Internet to gain an edge over the industry titan.

Web-based software and services are emerging for everything from checking e-mail to collaborating on business tasks.

Microsoft's concern is twofold: The paid services are convenient and easy to update, potentially offering an edge over Microsoft's Office and other desktop-bound applications. And the free services are, well, free; advertising often supports them. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

For now at least, Redmond-based Microsoft says it doesn't see these alternatives as a major threat, regarding them mainly as complementary to Office. And yet, Microsoft recently launched its own companywide push towards offering more Web-based software and services.

The question is, how scared should Microsoft be? To get a sense, this reporter decided to spend one week relying as much as possible on free software and services — available via the Internet — for everyday business tasks.

Although I sought to use the free Office alternatives whenever I could, I allowed myself to make exceptions when it would seriously interfere with my job. I continued to use The Associated Press' writing and editing program, which is not made by Microsoft. I also often had to use Microsoft Outlook since — like most workers — I depend on e-mail for my job and Outlook is tightly tied to the Microsoft Exchange e-mail server that AP employs.

I began by looking for viable a word processing alternative to Microsoft Word.

OpenOffice's "Writer" is a close replica, right down to the annoying tendency both have to try to "help" you when no help is needed. Writer repeatedly tried to finish the words I was typing. It also flashed a light bulb in the corner of the screen — apparently its version of Word's much-derided Mr. Clippy.

Still, the entire free OpenOffice suite, which includes database, spreadsheet and other applications, was easy to download with a broadband connection.

And once I had Writer on my machine, I found I didn't miss Microsoft Word at all. Many of the commands were the same, and I was able to easily open Word documents using Writer. The program also makes it extremely easy to save documents in the PDF format, something Microsoft only plans to offer with the forthcoming version of Office, due out in 2006.

Web-based word processing programs promise the further convenience of being able to access documents on any computer, and easily collaborate over the Internet with others.

One such product, Writely, was very easy to set up, and it was simple to create and store documents. It was a breeze with Writely to import Word documents already on my hard drive, and relatively simple to save Writely documents in either the Word or OpenOffice format.

My only beef was that I couldn't save documents as PDFs, but a spokeswoman said there are plans to fix that.

Competitor gOffice offered more sophisticated formatting options, and it was easy to print documents as PDFs. I had difficulty setting up a gOffice account, although the company was helpful when I called. Still, after the initial problems were resolved I found the process of saving and accessing files needlessly cumbersome.

As a reporter, I spend much of my day looking up sources' phone numbers and e-mail addresses, so it was essential that I find a good place to import, store and access my contact list.

OpenOffice's database program, Base, was able to import my contact list from Microsoft Outlook quickly and elegantly but did not give me the option of saving the data into the file format needed to transfer it to most other applications. Another OpenOffice program, Calc, let me to save the data in the right format but took more time to tweak the data so it would import correctly. Overall, I found it easier to use Microsoft Excel.

I tested several different programs for storing my contacts and liked Gmail — Google Inc.'s e-mail program — best. It offered simple instructions and imported my data with no problems. Plus, it was then easy to search the contacts.

There are tons of Web-based calendar programs that let you either upload your desktop-bound digital calendar or synchronize it with your existing program.

One that I tested, AirSet, did not provide clear guidance on how exactly it would sync information found on my hard drive, and in the end I balked out of security concerns.

Yahoo Inc.'s calendar application required that I uninstall other syncing software — something I didn't want to do — so I didn't end up using that, either. I also found Yahoo's system for adding new calendar items to be onerous; each entry requires the user to fill out a long form.

My overall favorite turned out to be CalendarHub, which easily imported four years worth of calendar data into a pleasing interface and — like several out there — offered handy e-mail reminders of upcoming events.

CalendarHub also offers a desktop program that will list upcoming meetings, but I had trouble getting it to work. When contacted, the company quickly fixed the bug.

Many Web-based calendars promote options for sharing calendar data with others. If I were setting up a carpool, e.g., this would be a nice feature.

Although my company's server software settings made it difficult to use other e-mail clients, I did work some with Mozilla's Thunderbird and found it to be a functional alternative to Outlook. The interface was familiar, and it was easy to set up and to import old e-mails.

I also used several free, Web-based e-mail accounts for some business communication. Gmail was my favorite for organizing data based on "conversations."

In the end, it came down to the familiar question of what was worth more, my time or my money. While it was technically possible to perform most of my daily work without using Microsoft Office — or my credit card — it took considerably more time.

Setting up the new systems was time-consuming, as I had expected. But my tolerance was tested by all the glitches, which can be common in new and free products.

Also, although it is nice in theory to be able to access data online, in practice it often took longer to log on to different applications every time I needed something, rather than just opening a file on my desktop.

Perhaps my biggest concern was about my privacy, once I began entrusting my calendar, contacts and other information to Web-based systems instead of my own hard drive and my company's secure network.

I scoured each product's privacy statement and didn't use some that I felt were too vague on protections. But I still couldn't shake the nagging feeling that my data was now in too many companies' hands.

And I wondered if I should really be storing such valuable work data on systems that could crash or go out of business at any time.

I found some benefits to having my work available on Web-based systems, and there are some I will probably use again.

But, for now at least, Microsoft is right — these challengers will complement, not replace, my Microsoft Office software.