For many, part of the back-to-school ritual includes buying a new computer and the accompanying software students need for writing reports, creating spreadsheets and making presentations.
Microsoft Office remains the giant in that field, dominating corporate and home computers. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.) But with a younger generation living more of its life on the Web, from Facebook to YouTube, free and Web-based productivity programs from companies like Google and Zoho have growing appeal.
More than 25 percent of online Americans use such Web-based programs, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which surveyed 2,251 online Americans. Pew found that 39 percent of those in the 18- to 29-age range use Web-based software such as Google Docs, which includes a word processing, spreadsheet and presentation program.
Another free program, OpenOffice.org, can be downloaded from the Web or is available by CD, and resides on a computer’s hard drive. The open-source productivity suite has been available for several years.
Traditionally, Microsoft’s Office family of products has been pricey, costing several hundreds of dollars, with one budget-minded offering, Office Home and Student, retailing for between $110 and $150.
But this fall, Office Home and Student can be found for less than $100. And, Microsoft has added Web-based and other Office flavors in order to remain No. 1 in the productivity suite arena.
Listen to Zoho company “evangelist” Raju Vegesna, and you start to understand the dynamic. The company, which started three years ago, recently announced it has 1 million users. He estimates 30 percent of them are students.
“We see at least 100,000 new users every month,” he said. “When we began, initially it took us about a year to get the first 100,000 users, but now we get 100,000 users in a month.”
Google Docs has “millions of active users,” according to Leon Kotlyar, a company spokesman.
“The price of a PC has come down this last four, five years,” says Vegesna. “Now you can get a PC for $400, but your (Microsoft) Office suite still costs $400, the same price as the hardware. The question is, why do you even want to pay the same price for the software when it is available for free, and much better?”
Microsoft has different versions of Office at different prices. Microsoft Office Standard 2007, for example, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook, retails for $400, or is $240 to upgrade from a previous version.
Among the company’s new offerings to entice users, and in particular, students:
Microsoft Office Ultimate 2007. Dubbed by Microsoft as “The Ultimate Steal,” the $59.95 program is available only to students enrolled at educational institutions. In addition to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook e-mail, it includes Microsoft Publisher and Microsoft Access, a database management program.
Microsoft Equipt. This subscription-based program, for $70 a year, includes Office Home and Student, as well as Windows Live OneCare, a Web-based security program. It’s worth noting that while Office Home and Student includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote (a note-taking and information management program), it does not include Outlook. Currently, Equipt is available only from Circuit City.
Microsoft Office Live Workspace. This free program, which is in beta, or test mode, is considered a companion, not a substitute, for Office. It offers an online collaboration service, akin to Google’s and Zoho’s, letting others review or edit documents.
“It’s hard to compete with free, but Microsoft’s doing a pretty good job here,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst who specialized in covering the company for more than a decade, and is now vice president of mobile strategy at Jupitermedia.
“As long as Microsoft can price their stuff competitively, I don’t think we’re going to see this notion of online (software) displace offline anytime in the near future.”
The Pew survey found that the main reasons users like online software is because it’s easy and convenient.
A large number also said “cloud computing,” as it’s called, lets them access the information they need from any computer, as well as share data with others,
Cloud computing relies on data centers around the globe to store, process and deliver information via the Internet. Both Google and Zoho’s word processing, spreadsheet and presentation programs are based on cloud computing.
Vegesna says Web-based productivity programs will overtake their hard-drive counterparts in much the same way that the cell phone is considered by many to be more crucial than a landline phone.
“The simple fact that you have access to it anywhere you go is one key advantage,” he said.
And with Web-based software, “the second advantage is going to be the collaboration, especially for students,” he said. “If I share a document with you, both of us can work on the same document at the same time, seeing each of the changes right away, and while we do that, we can also chat. That’s an important collaborative functionality. That’s powerful.”
Here are some of the features of the free productivity programs offered by Google, Zoho and OpenOffice.org. All of them are compatible with Microsoft formats:
You can import, export, upload and download Office word processing, spreadsheet and presentation files. Google recently added a dictionary and thesaurus to Docs. Also, if you want to get to your data when you’re not online, you can download Google Gears, a program that allows that to happen. With Gears, you can edit word documents offline, as well as view your spreadsheets or presentations.
You can invite others via e-mail to edit or view your documents, spreadsheets and presentations. You can also review previous versions of documents and spreadsheets, and change them back to earlier versions.
Documents can be sent out as attachments. Users also can embed a spreadsheet or presentation in a blog or a Web site.
Zoho Docs is the company’s recently announced online storage and management program for files created using the company’s word processing program, Zoho Writer, as well as Zoho Sheet and Zoho Show, spreadsheet and presentation programs.
The features of those programs are similar to Google’s. Zoho also offers other free programs that can be of help to students: Zoho Notebook, an online note-taker; Zoho Planner, an online organizer; and Zoho Chat, for making group decisions “faster.”
The company makes its money from its Zoho Business software programs, Vegesna said, which cost $50 a year per user, per business.
OpenOffice.org is run by volunteers, and is funded mainly by Sun Microsystems, as well as by Novell, IBM, Google and Red Hat.
“Unlike its major competitor, (OpenOffice.org) was designed from the start as a single piece of software, which makes for higher-quality software and a more consistent user experience,” OpenOffice.org says on its site.
“Our best estimate is that OpenOffice.org currently enjoys over 15 percent market share for office productivity suites.” The software, available in more than 70 languages, has been downloaded 100 million times, according to the group’s site.