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Online Word Processor Comparison: Google Docs vs. Zoho Documents, SkyDrive, Box.net

Josh Farkas



You can dutifully sync and backup your files (we’ve looked at services for syncing and backup) and still not be able to edit your documents when needed, if you are using a computer that doesn’t have the necessary software installed.  This was the problem I had when visiting my mom recently and found that she didn’t have a copy of Microsoft Office.  So today we will compare four options for creating, editing, reviewing and backing documents up online – Microsoft SkyDrive, Google Docs, Zoho Documents, and Box.net.  This may help you to avoid problems in the future when you don’t have the necessary software at hand.

To test each service’s viewing and editing capabilities, I used my resume.  I created it in college with a word processor, and over the years it has been saved in every iteration of MS Word.  As a result, the formatting is a mess.  You can’t see these problems if you are looking at the resume in MS Word or a PDF, but there are many legacy formatting issues that come up when editing it.  I mention this to say that I expected all of these programs to have some problems rendering it.



Microsoft SkyDrive

Free storage amount:

25 GBs

File size limitation:

50 MBs for Word, PowerPoint and OneNote, 2 MB for Excel

Sharing options:

Can provide permissions to other office live users and / or provide a link for others to view the file.

Live collaboration:

Not really, but they say it will arrive in the second half of 2010

Mobile Access:

Windows mobile devices only

Version History:

Yes

File syncing and offline access:

Yes, with Office 2010, free Beta version and if you install SkyDrive synced storage you can sync up to 5 GBs of information (this increased on August 27th and the name was changed back to Live Mesh)

Full text search:

No, it inexplicably brought up hundreds of other documents belonging to others that had the term I searched for though

Tie-ins with other services:

No non-Microsoft options

Unique free features:

SkyDrive offers not just the typical document, Excel and presentation software but also includes OneNote, a great program similar to Evernote but in a lot of ways better

Available features for a price:

Not clear

User Interface:

7 (1=bad, 10=good)
Overall impressions: 9 (1=bad, 10=good)


Microsoft’s SkyDrive has a lot of promise, but there are some limitations typical of the Microsoft way of doing things.  First, Microsoft has hobbled a great product by making it available only on Microsoft mobile devices.  I don’t have the statistics on usage of Windows mobile phones, but it’s telling that I’ve never met anyone that owned one.  Second, SkyDrive feels like it is trying to be everything at once.  There is file storage, several syncing options, a photo sharing section, email, messenger, contacts, calendar, group boards, Spaces (picture Facebook if Microsoft had made it)…it’s just a lot of services and a little disconcerting to wonder how to get back to my documents.  Third, it seems like Microsoft is not quite sure what it wants to do with files.  In the past I have used Microsoft’s Live Mesh service, which stored and synced files across devices, but was limited to just 2 GBs of space.  Then Microsoft offered me a Beta test of Live Mesh for Developers which had all sorts of cool desktop-like widgets in the cloud, but did not transfer over my files from my old Mesh account.  Then they offered SkyDrive which had 25 GBs of space but did not sync files, and Live Sync which synced files but did offer any sort of storage for the files (they were just synced between computers).  Finally, as of August 27, they changed the name Live Sync to Live Mesh.  I’m not sure where that leaves the “old” Live Mesh.  It’s all very confusing.

Despite the litany of Microsoft issues, SkyDrive is a good product.  The formatting for my resume wasn’t great, but pretty close.  SkyDrive’s UI is very familiar, as it has a look that very much reminds me of Windows.  SkyDrive has folders and tagging for organization.  This makes it very easy to navigate and find the file I am looking for.  There aren’t any apparent tie-ins of other services, but with all that Microsoft offers there is very little need for other services, if you can find your way around.

With so much free storage offered you knew someone would figure out a way to make it even more useful.  In fact there are two options to mount your SkyDrive storage as a virtual hard drive, thus allowing you to drag and drop files into it directly from your computer.  These options are SDExplorer and Map the drives [via the Download Squad].  I’ve used SDExplorer before and really liked it as a way to be able to drag and drop my picture files to back them up to Microsoft’s servers.



Zoho Documents

Free storage amount:

1 GB

File size limitation:

1 GB

Sharing options:

Very good

Live collaboration:

Built in chat but not document editing

Mobile Access:

iPhone and Android apps

Version History:

No

File syncing and offline access:

No


Full text search:

Yes

Tie-ins with other services:

Oddly, Zoho advertises it’s ability to work with Google Docs

Unique free features:

Offers chat in Docs interface, ties-in with Google Docs

Available features for a price:

Many including increased storage, workspaces, versioning and more, plans start at $3 a month and go as high as $1,100 a month for enterprise type offerings

User Interface:

8 (1=bad, 10=good)

Overall impressions:

9 (1=bad, 10=good)


I’m intrigued by Zoho, as they seem to admit that they are number two to Google Docs but are OK with it, and even embrace it.  Many of the feature sets between the two services are identical, and the Zoho folks stress their integration with Google services and the ability to import Google Docs files.  They even go so far as allow you to sign in with your Google credentials.  But they do offer some unique features as well.  Among these are a ton of different ways to organize your documents (including some which I haven’t seen elsewhere), such as organizing by folder, by tag, by workspace, by those shared by me, by those shared with me, and by type (documents, spreadsheets, presentations, pictures, music and videos).   My resume was decent but there there some inconsistencies and it deleted the separators between sections.  It looked salvageable but still wouldn’t work to give to an employer.

While I wouldn’t use Zoho on a day to day basis, I’m not sure why that is.  Despite the myriad of ways to organize and view your files, it’s a very clean and simple interface with a lot of information.  It ties-in with Zoho’s other services, which are plentiful.  Zoho offers more online office-type services than Microsoft and Google, and possibly more than the two combined.  My reason for not embracing Zoho might be the same reason I have never fully jumped on-board with Dropbox- it might just be too boring for me?



Google Docs

Gmail as a Wave replacement

Free storage amount:

1 GB

File size limitation:

Varied, Docs and Spreadsheets 1 MB, Presentations 10 MB, drawings unlimited and imported but not converted files 1 GB

Sharing options:

Private, Working group or public

Live collaboration:

Yes, in the documents or in a chat window on the side

Mobile Access:

Web and 3rd party apps

Version History:

No

File syncing and offline access:

Not exactly (see below)

Full text search:

Yes, also searches within PDFs and can be searched from Gmail

Tie-ins with other services:

Not from Google’s interface

Unique free features:

Accepts all file formats,  offers free optical character recognition for PDFs and pictures so that text is searchable

Available features for a price:

More storage, if you purchase more it is added to all of your Google services prices from $5/year for 20 GBs to $256/year for 1 TB

User Interface:

7 (1=bad, 10=good)

Overall impressions:

9 (1=bad, 10=good)


Just two weeks ago we talked about some of the potential uses of Google Docs, but the flexibility and features of Google Docs means that Docs lends itself to many different uses.  This is one of its strongest points.  Add to this Google’s active development of the product and you have a very strong offering.  In fact, since our article two weeks ago, Google has made Google Docs searchable from within Gmail, giving it a whole other layer of ease for anyone who keeps Gmail open throughout the day.

Amazingly, Google Docs did a better job of rendering my resume than even Microsoft’s product.  I’m not sure I understand how your competitor could beat you at formatting your own document, but it surely happened with this one.  Google Docs added a few extraneous horizontal lines, but they were easily deleted with a couple keystrokes.

There are of course downsides to Google Docs, like any other service.  The 1 GB storage limit is paltry compared to SkyDrive’s 25 GB, especially if you want to store all of your documents in one place.  Google Docs doesn’t have offline support as of May 3, 2010 when for some reason Google discontinued support of Google Gears.  This was presumably done with an eye towards HTML 5 providing offline copies of all apps, but it’s not available yet.  As a result, there is no Google-provided offline support.  However, as we mentioned in our post about sync tools, Syncplicity syncs files across computers, its web interface, and also Google Docs.  Evan explained this Syncplicty feature:

“One of Syncplicity’s nicest features, and the one that I use the most, is its ability to link a local folder with your Google Docs account.  Simply authorize Syncplicity as an allowed app, and select files or folders you want to keep in sync.  Syncplicity will then keep those documents in sync with the documents in your Google Docs account.  That enables you to create documents in a desktop word processor, and know that they will be available anywhere, from within Google Docs.”



Box.net

Free storage amount:

1 GB

File size limitation:

25 MB, for free accounts, up to 2 GBs for paid accounts

Sharing options:

Many, but for most you need a premium account

Live collaboration:

No

Mobile Access:

iPhone and Blackberry apps, and mobile web

Version History:

For paying customers

File syncing and offline access:

For Business and Enterprise users

Full text search:

With paying account

Tie-ins with other services:

Box.net offers the absolute most I’ve ever seen, some are free while others are only available to paying customers

Unique free features:

Easily embeds files in your website, you can assign tasks to each file

Available features for a price:

Too many to count!

User Interface:

8, but in a weird way (1=bad, 10=good)

Overall impressions:

6 (1=bad, 10=good)


Box.net has by far the most tie-ins with other services and there is much to be said for it; however it is also the most commercialized.  It’s hard to explain, but it’s so polished that if it were a destination it would surely be a tourist trap.  There are weekly webinars about how to get more out of it, links to become an expert, a sales number and annoying little flags that at every turn show what you could get if you upgraded (please don’t tell me it’s version two of a document and then pop-up a cutesy “Oops” message about how I didn’t pay $9.95 a month to see up to 10 versions!).  Did I mention that Jim, “my business partner,” contacted me to talk about upgrading options, separate from the email I received welcoming me and also suggesting that I upgrade?  I guess they have a business plan that works for them, since as far as I know they have been around the longest of the four services.  Still, it’s kind of obnoxious and in your face.

As for the resume test, this one is a little different than the others because it doesn’t have a native file editor.  Box.net relies on Zoho’s editor described above, so obviously it had the same issues as Zoho did with formatting.

The quantity of tie-ins that Box.net offers is commendable, but it just made me feel dirty using it.  I think a more open platform that I can use with other services will be the future of this kind of thing.  However, despite it’s lead in the area, I doubt Box.net will be the one to offer it.



Conclusions

As you may have noticed, Microsoft SkyDrive, Zoho and Google Docs all received an overall score of  9.  Each service has its positives and negatives, and I think it will mostly come down to personal preference.  SkyDrive’s strongest asset is it’s massive amount of free storage, since no other service here offers more than 1 GB for free.  It has shortcomings that are mainly of Microsoft’s doing, which is unfortunate because while a bug can be fixed, a corporate culture is much harder to turn around.  Zoho is a great product that does a good job, but it just doesn’t wow me.  Google Docs could use some real help with the user interface and needs a much larger capacity, but I think it’s telling that I am writing this post in Google Docs.


So what service do you use for online editing of documents?


Photo by net_efekt