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Goodbye to Office? Not Yet

Glide offers a peek at where Web-based tools may be headed. But it has some kinks to work out

by Stephen H. Wildstrom

The notion that cheap or free Web-based word processing or spreadsheet programs could replace traditional software like Microsoft Office (MSFT) is becoming more realistic all the time. Outfits like Google (GOOG), ThinkFree, and Zoho have new and better services every day. And now startup Transmedia has come out with Glide OS 2.0, a package that aims to replace nearly all the software on your computer.

At the moment, Glide's ambitions exceed its ability to deliver by a fair margin. It's still officially only in beta (a state Google's Gmail has been in for three years) and is clearly a work in progress. But as a demonstration of where Web-based software may be headed, Glide (www.glidedigital.com) is a fascinating experiment.

The suite covers most things consumers do on their computers. There's a word processor, a photo editor, a drawing program, a presentation program, and a blog-writing tool along with e-mail, calendar, contact list, chat, and file-sharing. And, of course, you can play music and videos, read news feeds from Web sites, and check the weather.

Home Screen Confusion

All of this is done within a Web browser, and the data are stored on Glide's servers, not your hard drive. Pricing is based on storage: A free basic account offers 300 megabytes of storage, not a lot if you're going to do much with photos or other media. Paid accounts start at $4.95 a month or $49.95 a year for 2 gigabytes of storage. Once your information is in the Glide system, you can get to it from anywhere. The applications are based on Adobe's Flash 9 software, meaning they will work on any system that can run Flash. A mobile version formats Glide for the small screens of handheld devices.

I tried Glide on a variety of systems, large and small: Windows XP and Vista PCs and a Mac, with 24-inch displays; laptops, a Samsung Q1 ultramobile PC with a 7-inch screen, Palm Treos, even a BlackBerry. The experience varied dramatically. In all cases, though, I had access to my data and could use at least some of the applications with any of the devices, wherever I happened to be.

Glide's main shortcoming is that it tries to do too many things and doesn't do many of them particularly well yet. The home screen is a jumble, often providing a couple of ways to do something when one is all you need. And the quality of the applications varies greatly. The word processor is straightforward and reasonably full-featured. It normally stores documents in Web-page (HTML) format, but also can save them as Word or PDF files. Yet I couldn't find a way to open an existing document from within the word-processing program; I had to go to the document list, select the one I wanted, and click "edit." The photo editor is both remarkably full-featured and fast. But I found the media player hopelessly confusing. And so it goes.

Fast Connection a Must One major drawback of any Web-based software suite is that it works only when you are connected to the Internet. To get reasonable performance with Glide on a PC, you need a relatively fast broadband connection. That's no problem for many home users, but it won't work for lots of business users who need to work on airplanes or at hotels with slow connections.

All of the many companies working on Web-based applications are struggling with this issue. Glide provides a useful separate program, called Glide Sync, for exchanging data between online storage and a local hard drive. And Adobe (ADBE) is working on a project, called Apollo, that will let Flash-based applications work without a Web connection.

So Glide has a ways to go before I would be willing to scrap Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, or even Gmail. But the day that becomes a serious option may not be all that far off.

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