How the Cloud is Changing Online Productivity

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InfoWorld recently ran a series of three articles focused on the major online productivity apps: Microsoft Office Online, Apple iWork for iCloud, and Google Apps.

It’s no surprise that in a world of both increasing connectivity and the need for mobile productivity, traditional desktop-based software has lost its appeal to some extent. After all, when you are limited to a single instance of a program on one computer, your flexibility to work can be somewhat hampered. We have seen this across a wide range of different software applications – from Adobe’s Creative Cloud program to Google’s assortment of office and voice/video chat apps.

So how did our three reviewed cloud-based app suites fare? Summed down to one sentence each, here is what they had to say:

  • Office Online… “great for Word and Excel, not PowerPoint”
  • Apple’s iWork for iCloud… “elegant but limited”
  • Google Drive… “leads in features, lags in ease-of-use”
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Apps-at-a-glance

Office Online leads in Office document compatibility, and both Microsoft and Google lead in raw word-processing and spreadsheet features. However, Apple’s iWork brings cohesive and unified design that makes the other two look like old versions of productivity suites from the 1990s/early 2000s.

Office Online works with any recent version of the major browsers (IE, Chrome, Safari, Firefox). For those that need absolute compatibility with traditional MS Office, this is the way to go. Unfortunately, PowerPoint’s interface is terrible and doesn’t measure up to its desktop counterpart.

iWork for iCloud has been built as a whole from the ground up, unlike the other two which inherited from predecessors or resemble old versions of software. Apple’s suite has a very coherent, uniform design and that consistency extends to working with the same elements across different applications (something that has been an issue for its competitors in the past).

Google, as the “pioneer in free online office productivity”, was the first to make its online Google Docs available to people to use free of charge. Gradually, other elements were added such as form builders, drawing tools, cloud storage, and tighter integration with other Google “app” services.

When it comes to getting to your data?

Whereas Apple has built a nearly impenetrable wall around its iWork for iCloud apps and makes you jump through several iCloud hoops to get data into and out of the applications, Microsoft OneDrive and Google Drive both play nicely with Windows. Like OneDrive, Google Drive integrates with Windows Explorer/File Explorer through a downloadable client. To make life easier, you should install the Google Drive client on your Windows PC (or Mac) and work through the native file system just as you would with any other files.

Challenges with web-based apps

It’s clear that although there are plenty of benefits to using cloud apps, there are still challenges to overcome. Some of these are application specific (i.e. troubles with file compatibility) and others are more foundational. The foundational challenges are those that skeptics feel limit the ability of web apps to truly replace desktop applications:

Limited Features – Anyone who has compared Google Drive to MS Office will know that there is a serious gap in features. Moreover, native apps usually gain any new features first, and the web version follows. Adobe’s adoption of the “Creative Cloud” and announcement that they will no longer upgrade Creative Suite is their way of unifying their product line and providing a single upgrade path.

Performance – Because of its online nature, web apps were inherently cursed to suffer slower performance relative to native software. Reliance on JavaScript – a higher level dynamic code – means poorer performance than the compiled machine code which native apps use. That said, in recent years, new JavaScript engines in the browser and JS subsets that limit its dynamic features (such as asm.js) have allowed for previously impossible performance optimizations.

Offline Mode – You won’t always be connected, and if users are to replace desktop apps with their web counterparts, they need to be able to rely on smooth transitions from online to offline without losing any of their work. HTML5’s application cache feature, which was the first significant attempt at getting offline to work for web apps was widely regarded as a failure. Web apps have gotten better for offline editing, but many people still encounter syncing difficulties and disappearing data.

Stability – This is perhaps one of the biggest issues. Web apps and browsers are relatively unstable – something of a trade-off with cross-platform compatibility – compared to most native apps, the risk of an error or crash is of more concern. In addition, although native apps fail, in general they either work the way they are supposed to, or they fail completely and you must restart. With web apps there is a much higher risk of specific things failing and causing issues which either are undetected or which cannot be debugged effectively due to many moving parts.

Web apps… the future or still a dream?

Though web apps have come a long way, the general sense seems to be that most users don’t feel they are at the point where they can truly replace their desktop apps. However, it may be that web apps never fully replace them but rather act only as a complement. In this case the goal should be increasing the ease in which users can move between their desktop and web counterparts. Unfortunately it also means higher costs for companies who have to maintain two sets of applications.

Another possibility is for cases when web apps only need to be “good enough” for enough users to accept an alternative. The challenge is determining in which cases this works… and in which it doesn’t. Performance-critical applications – such as heavy multimedia work – may never be able to move to the cloud-only. On the other hand, document collaboration is something that seems much more feasible as the benefits of web apps can easily outweigh the costs.

To read the original series of articles reviewing Office Online, iWork for iCloud, and Google Drive, visit the following links:

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