Collaborate on the Web

Internet tools let teams write, edit and calculate together online.



Here’s the problem: Your three-partner CPA firm based in Boston is on a tight deadline to prepare an audit report for a client. One partner is at the client’s Philadelphia headquarters; another is traveling in Houston; and you’re in Boston. The three of you must collaborate on the report; however, you’re not enthusiastic about editing, reviewing and trading comments on this complex subject via e-mail. But since your firm is hardly high-tech, you don’t see any options.

Actually, there are. Thanks to several new Web-based office suites, the three of you have access to the technical tools you need to collaborate on the same document or spreadsheet, at the same time and from different locations. As if that’s not enough, these collaboration tools come free of charge—although that may change in the future.

The two most fully matured Web sites that can handle such collaboration are Google Docs & Spreadsheets ( and Zoho ( This article shows you how their Web-based office suites can add a whole new dimension to how, where and when you perform professional tasks.

Other online office suites include AjaxOffice (, ThinkFree ( and GOffice ( There also are stand-alone online spreadsheets such as EditGrid ( and NumSum (, but none of their tools is as powerful and easy to use as Google’s and Zoho’s.

Think of the two Web applications as slimmed-down versions of Microsoft Office’s Word and Excel. However, unlike Microsoft Office, which is installed on a user’s computer, these applications reside on the Web site and must be accessed via the Internet. To get started, you can either create a file at the site or you can upload a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet from your computer. Colleagues can then access it on the site (after you give them permission), download it to their computers or even copy it to another Web site.

Exhibit 1 shows a typical Google Docs & Spreadsheets opening menu.


Exhibit 2 shows a typical document.


Exhibit 3 illustrates a typical Google spreadsheet, which was converted from an Excel worksheet.


Since files can be stored at these Web sites, a traveling CPA doesn’t have to carry files in bulky storage media or worry about the synchronization of multiple copies of a document or spreadsheet. In addition, the sites use version control to track changes on all files. All previous versions of a file, including comments, are stored. Users can roll back to a previous version and see who made what change in which revision.

Exhibit 4 illustrates a roll-back menu.


Exhibit 5 illustrates a Google document that can simultaneously display two previous versions of a document.


Zoho has a feature some other products lack: a function that resembles Microsoft Office’s PowerPoint. With that application, users can set up a presentation at a remote location and control it from their distant office.

Both the Google and Zoho applications contain most conventional editing and format functions, including spell-checking. The sites are accessible via Internet Explorer or Firefox.

Google and Zoho even allow users to send files to PDAs (personal digital assistants) or cell phones. Google permits multiple users to chat via instant messages when they are working on the same spreadsheet. In addition, all the online suites have tools to publish documents on other Web sites or blogs. (For more on blogs, see “ Jump on the Blog Wagon JofA , June 06, page 28).

The applications still have some rough edges. For instance, they lack functions such as headers and footers, symbol insertion, footnotes and endnotes, and paragraph controls such as line-spacing options. But those refinements will surely be added soon.

One wonders, as technology progresses and the Internet speeds up and becomes more reliable, whether such Web sites’ applications eventually will gain favor over ones that need to be installed onto local hard drives. Even today, using applications on a Web site makes good sense, not only because they provide collaboration, but also because they relieve users of the need to upgrade and maintain computer-based programs.

Yu Cong , Ph.D., is an assistant professor of accounting at Towson University, Towson, Md. His e-mail address is . Hui Du , MBA, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of accounting at the University of Texas–Pan American, College of Business Administration, Edinburg, Texas. Her e-mail address is .


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