My Chromebook volume III: Which web suite is the winner?

Goodness, I am beginning to wish I had not started researching this post. It all started simply enough; I was checking the IT expenditure of the Cabinet Office to see if any big chunks of IT money had gone to our ‘Failing Private Schools...

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Goodness, I am beginning to wish I had not started researching this post. It all started simply enough; I was checking the IT expenditure of the Cabinet Office to see if any big chunks of IT money had gone to our ‘Failing Private Schools Bail-out Fund’ otherwise known as the Free Schools initiative.

No, nothing there.

I should have left it but each item on the Direct.gov site had a Zoho link to display its goodies. The data appeared on very nice spreadsheet, not dissimilar to how Google Docs looked before last week’s upgrade.

This was quite intriguing. Zoho is a comprehensive suite of web apps so a good choice for sharing data on the web, but this experience came hard on the heels of the Department for Education sharing its exam results with me and thousands of others on a Google spreadsheet.

Hmmm, surely no coincidence? Two very nice free web apps which owe so much to open source’s software and philosophy just lurking around like that on gov sites waiting for my Chromebook to access them? Spooky.

Hang on, no it can’t be... ghost of G-Cloud is that you? Do you have a message for me?

You do?

Within a swirling mist I can see four shapes; two of them glow brightly, a deer? a dog? Hard to see but the other two seem to chill the very air around them, removing all joy, even hope.

Yes, I see them now, disembodied web apps. A battle rages between good and evil. The scratch on the cover of my Chromebook is glowing; he who must not be named (for legal reasons) is near. I must write a review.

And so to probe Google Docs, Zoho, Buzzword and Office 365, the four really big web app suites.

Good v evil, but which is which?

Heck this is a difficult one. I know Google really well, I rely on it (please don’t become too evil), but the others less so. All four are fighting for cloud market space, all four have competent web apps; so the question is who do you commit to?

This is the problem. I cannot imagine moving now I am settled with Google, it’s too much hassle and there’s no real driver me to do so, but for the neophyte it’s all to play for.

Who should you go with? It looks like the Government had made some decisions before the G-Cloud plug was pulled, but what about you and me?

Obviously each web app company wants to make it near impossible to do like for like comparisons, and they duly succeed. Whatever I write about their word processor apps an apologist will counter with something annoying, like what about Sharepoint compatibility? Or CRM dashboard synchronisation, PDF generation...You get the picture

So we are left with generalisation and feelings to compare them. Are you happy for me to say that all have word processors that do word processing things, spreadsheets that do sums and presentation suites that are able to bore you as well as any PowerPoint show? Good, also they allow ‘collaboration’ and stuff. Of course they do they all the technologies that the web can deliver.

We need differentiation. We get it.

Microsoft plays it straight. It’s the dominant Office player, it can skin a web app to look like its desktop suite without suing itself; it’s confident that you dare not abandon Office because Doreen in accounts won’t like it, so the word ‘buy’ is all over its site. ‘For only £4 a month’ etc etc. You have to hand it to them, win or lose long term, the revenue stream starts now.

MS’s big rival in the proprietary field is Adobe. Adobe is PDF and Flash. This means it too can charge for its apps. Adobe’s web products are (of course) very polished and some are free (think Adobe Reader here) but although more coy than MS, the overall pricing is similar if you want the full set of features, which you will.

Just for fun, MS’s upcoming Windows 8 does not support Flash and instead relies on HTML 5. That’ll sort out Adobe’s Flashy web apps... they’ll have to run on Macs. It feels like we've been here before?

So while the old boys slug it out in the normal way we have the open source crowd with their offerings. Google or Zoho? Both use open source core technologies, and you can do most things without paying them any money, but of course you can pay them money for ‘premium’ this and that.

Zoho will appeal to those into the kinds of applications you find in ERP suites such as OpenERP: lots of ‘dashboards’, CRM software and other business apps like invoicing, project management and the like. Google docs doesn't do this kind of thing, it's more mainstream and media orientated.

To return to the battle for web app space and the subject of who will win. As I said earlier, like for like comparisons are not possible, and all products could have typed this blog with ease, so we are left with gut feelings. My intestines tell me that Adobe and MS’s hearts are simply not in it. Sure they will make money, but that’s what they do. On the other hand, Google and Zoho really believe.

So I agree with HM Government for once.

The one IT project that never failed was G-Cloud, and joyfully at its heart is free open source software. Finally because this is a education blog, do they all have education offerings and prices? Google and MS do, so what should a school choose? Google.

The sole reason is that schools have to back a winner as they did with the PC.

Back in the 90’s we had many really excellent Macs and Acorn RISC computers in education, but it became painfully obvious that Windows was going to triumph in education. It wasn't so much because they were better, but because they wanted it so badly and had the muscle to take it.

Today that logic surely applies to Google.