We cover the trend of Web Office closely here on Read/WriteWeb. Google Apps, Salesforce.com, Zoho, ThinkFree, Zimbra - these are some of the leading vendors of web-based office software. And last week came the big news that Zimbra was acquired by Yahoo! for $350M (read our analysis of why), so the market for this software is hot.

Another company that has been quietly, but effectively, doing business in this segment has been WebEx. They even managed to snag the perfect name for their product: WebOffice. WebEx WebOffice has 2,000,000 registered users and 27,000 businesses rely on it. The main focus of the product is to enable collaboration amongst its users - although as we'll see in this post, it isn't really competing in the same field as Google Apps or even Zimbra.

Last week I spoke to Derek Peplau, senior product manager for WebOffice, to find out more about the product. In particular I wanted to find out how WebEx WebOffice compared to the likes of Google Apps, Zoho and Zimbra. During the demo I discovered that WebEx's product has more in common with Salesforce.com, in that it's an on-demand service and doesn't offer standalone word processing, spreadsheet or presentations. So let's get this out of the way right now: WebEx WebOffice, despite the name, isn't an office suite package like Google Apps, Zoho, ThinkFree and others. Despite this, WebEx WebOffice seems to be a very good solution for small businesses - and even in parts of the enterprise (e.g. as a solution for individual teams or projects).

What is WebEx WebOffice?

This product is squarely aimed at small-medium businesses. The typical customer is a small business (5 - 100 users), with little or no IT infrastructure, and workers in multiple locations. WebEx WebOffice is an on-demand, subscription-based service that offers email, calendaring, meetings and other office services. The pricing starts at $59.95 / mth per 5 users. Although it's skewed towards SMB, WebOffice also has enterprises using it on a departmental or project basis - i.e. it's not enterprise-scale, but can be used in projects or teams.

The main features of WebOffice are: Group Calendaring with Outlook and PIM support; Document management; Database with customizable business templates (CRM, HR, etc.), WebEx meetings; Polls, announcements, threaded discussions and more. One thing to note however is that these products don't use Ajax as much as products like Zimbra or Zoho. Peplau told me that WebOffice is going to offer drag and drop Ajax and similar functionality in the next upgrade - but right now it is not core to the product.


WebEx WebOffice dashboard (part of it)

Comparison with Microsoft and Google Products

WebEx WebOffice is not a replacement for Microsoft Office or even Google Apps. When it comes to word processing or spreadsheets, for example, users can organize their documents and spreadsheets in WebEx WebOffice, but they can't edit or create documents/spreadsheets inside the service. For that they need Microsoft Word or Excel, or an equivalent (such as from OpenOffice, or Google Apps). Derek Peplau described WebEx WebOffice to me as more "a library" for documents and spreadsheets.


Folder management in WebOffice

I asked: will WebEx WebOffice offer word processing or spreadsheet software in future? Peplau replied that they don't see "a large call" for that functionality. He said their customers use WebEx WebOffice to enable them "to collaborate across time and distance" - not offer them an alternative to word processing, spreadsheet, presentations, etc.

Conclusion

In August I took a stab at defining Web Office. I wrote that a Web Office is "a combination of productivity, publishing and collaboration features. A Web Office both embraces the functionality of desktop office suites (e.g. Microsoft Office) and extends it by using Web Native features." I think it's fair to say that WebEx WebOffice falls short on that definition. It has collaboration, but not much in the way of productivity or publishing features. And it doesn't really extend traditional office software much, nor offer much in the way of Ajax functionality.

However, WebEx WebOffice is a more than adequate office software system for small businesses - as long as you have complementary productivity and publishing apps (e.g. MS Word, Excel, Google Docs, OpenOffice software). Also WebEx offers some best-of-breed functionality of its own - particularly webmeetings, which I was told is a function that drives a lot of customer adoption for WebEx WebOffice.

So although WebEx WebOffice doesn't live up to its name as a 'Web Office' (at least according to our definition), it's a successful product being used by 2M people and 27k businesses. It compares well with Salesforce.com as a useful on-demand web-based office service.