The Virtually Free Office

In setting up our business we pushed our office online by using a couple of the free tools and services to get started.
gmail hosted sollution

Starting a company means spending a fair amount of money up front before the money (hopefully) starts rolling in. Every penny counts and what you least want to do is spend a load on software were you only use a fraction of the functionalities. Using Microsoft Windows with Office will usually get the job done but if you want to stay legal you end up paying a lot of money for software.

During our initial months we have used Writely, Googles hosted mail solution, Google Spreadsheet, Google Calendar and Thumbstack presentations in running our company.

Our experience has been mainly positive but there are still some shortcoming in these online application that prevents a complete switch away from desktop apps. Here are the experiences we have had using different free services.

The tools we use

This is an online alternative to MS Word owned by Google. It has basic word processing features like spell checking, text formatting, inserting tables, images and links. There are more advanced features like sharing and collaborating a document as well as posting to a weblog.

Update: Writely is now known as the first half of Google Docs & Spreadsheet writely

Gmail for Your Domain
This feature is wonderful for a small company like us. We get the GMail mail client interface for our own domains and send email from our own domain while having all the benefits of GMail. That means that there are no need to run instances of Outlook or Thunderbird or a slow Horde.
gmail hosted sollution

Google spreadsheet
An alternative to MS Excel. We havent used it extensively but it seems to have most of basics spreadsheet features working and there is a feature for importing and exporting to Excel. Macros and other more advanced features are not provided.
Google spreadsheet

Google Calendar
In the suite of cool Google Apps there is also their calendar. It integrates with Gmail and it is very easy to share calendars and events. There is a new feature that sends you a SMS message when you have events.
Google Calendar

Create presentations online using Thumbstack. This is the least mature of the online apps we have been using. Yet again it provides basic presentation features but this one also still has a couple of glitches.

Apart from these free online tools we have been using these hosted (so they are not free) open-source solutions:

For creating our website because it is just so easy. There is a big variaty of plugins avalible and with the size of our site WordPress works great as a CMS.

For project management we use this clone of BaseCamp that easily lets you manage a project with a set of workers and stake holders.

Positive experiences

1. Sharing is very easy
There is no need to attach files and email them back and forth – these online tools lets you share your documents very easily. Its easy to pull people in and out for reviews or collaboration on projects.

2. Revisions are easy to keep track of
No more need for obscure file names like proposal_edit_michael_3-02.doc. Writely has a revision feature that lets you see the changes and lets you browse them easily.

3. Simultaneous editing
We can work in the same document at the same time. As long as we are not working in the same paragraph it works pretty well. This enables for getting things done faster if necessary.

4. No lost data
My laptop broke (f!ck!) but since everything was online I just needed a new (old) computer and I was back on track.

5. Organize using tags
Instead of a folder hierarchy files can be tagged. With tagging things can still become disorganized but so far its worked for us.

6. Low learning barrier
Unlike Office XP these applications are very simple – and that is most often a good thing.

7. Easy to get started
For most of these applications it is very easy to get started. Sign up and you are going.

8. Accessibility – Work from anywhere
Documents are accessible everywhere you can get online all you need is a computer with a steady connection. Having a broken laptop and an old box I cant bring my stuff with me, but when I visit my parents in the other end of the country I can still work on documents on my dads computer.

9. No upgrading
These products are still quite young and new features are added regularly usually without any action needed from me.

10. Its free!

Negative experiences

1. Security and confidentiality
Putting your data out there on the Internet can be a scary. How can you be sure nobody is snooping? How can you garantee confidentiality?

2. No Internet – no work
As if it wasnt already true, your Internet connection become just as vital as your power plug. If you loose connection you cant get any work done.

3. World of Beta
Features might come and go, and the interface might change overnight – tho usually to the better. Some might become premium features once the application has matured.

4. Lack of features
I dont miss a lot but there are essential features that I still really need in order to do everything using these tools. So I still need to pull them out into a desktop application to make them look pretty.

5. Lock-in
Can I get all my data out the day I find a better alternative? Most of these tools allow you to export the single document but so far there are not a batch functionality for it.

6. Missing localization
The spell checking is only in (American) English, number and date formats are also only available in English standards.

7. No possibilities for audit of changes
Since we are only two people this hasnt been an issue – but for a bigger group the option of approving/auditing changes might be a necessity.

8. No linking to other documents wiki-style
Writely is not a wiki-tool but the ability to create relations to other documents would be a very useful feature.

9. Exporting to .doc creates some layout issues
Exporting a document to Word/OpenOffice for further editing and layout inherent some layout issues. It inserts some blank lines and you need to do some clean up of the document before it looks ok.

10. Its free
So what can I expect/demand from the supplier?


Overall this has worked out fine for us and we continue to use these apps – tho still with the backup of desktop apps. It will be interesting to follow along on the scene of online applications to see what they have evolved into in a year or two.

Further reading