Web-based office software, such as Google docs and Microsoft Office 365, have risen over recent years, as a credible, daily solution, for office needs.
They offer, at very low cost, or, seemlingly, for free, a number of online software, that include a wordprocessor, spreadsheet, presentation software… and online storage.
Early seen as an object of curiosity (when people all used Microsoft Office or Open/Libre-Office…), they have improved a lot in term of features. Also, they have become more and more confortable to use with the deployment of fast and low-latency residential Internet access.
But the key feature that have made all these solutions to become a “must use” in the 2010’s, is their capability to let people share documents and work simultaneously, in real time, on those documents. Especially in our new world of mobility and telecommuting, this collaborative feature has definately made “legacy” office software tools of the past for a fast-growing number of people (including me).
These solutions still have some drawbacks.
In particular, Google tools are free, only because they are part of an ecosystem that is catching their users and all their data in an indirect business model that is driven by advertizing. Actually, Google is selling their users data to advertisers. On the other hand Microsoft, which is coming from the old software world, has a transitioning business model, where they often sell Office365 licences has a part of a larger offering, that still includes legacy Office software.
Anyway, in all cases, these are proprietary, closed source solutions, that do not offer any guarantee to their users, neither in term of data security, nor in term of data privacy. Therefore, despite their obvious technical quality, these software products are not reliable for users.
Open source “alternatives”
Very fortunately, credible Open Source alternatives have been showing up recently:
- LibreOffice/Collabora have done a great job as offering an online version of OpenOffice, that I covered in an earlier article. I was very impressed by this product, but at the time, it was still a bit “rough”, and unfortunately it didn’t offer the realtime collaboration feature that makes these tools so desirable. Last time I checked it still lacked realtime collaboration capabilities.
- OnlyOffice has been developed in Northern Europe for several years, and recently contacted me to know if I would be interested in having a look at their (open source) solution. At first I admit I’ve been somewhat doubtful that an independent initiative could challenge the “big ones” and LibreOffice/Collabora. I was wrong.
I won’t go into many details, better provide you a general idea of what it does and go ahead with installation!
OnlyOffice is an online office software that can be used either on their servers, or installed on yours. They have a number of affordables plans that can be as low as $1/€1/user/month. And you should consider these plans seriously by keeping in mind that OnlyOffice won’t do a business with your personal data like Google does. It’s even free for non-profit orgs.
Or you can install it (for free or with a support plan) on your own servers.
OnlyOffice also provides:
- a “drive” to manage your documents in a cloud,
- an comprehensive office suite, that includes wordprocessor, spreadsheet, presentation software etc.
- connectors to several cloud storage solutions
- an email server solution (apparently forked from the great iRedMail)
- a calendar server solution, integrated with the mail server
- a CRM solution
- a project management solution (including Gantt charts and time-management)
- and dedicated iOS and Android mobile applications
Let’s give it a test drive
Instead of copy-pasting their screenshots, I’m going to show how it can be installed and setup. It’s more challenging!
I’m not going to try recompiling everything from source though. I looked for the easiest way, and therefore I’ve decided to install it from their ready-to-use docker images, using a cloud hosting at Scaleway, using a Docker OS image.
Very fortunately, OnlyOffice provides Docker images and instructions on their website, to quickly set up a full document, email and community OnlyOffice server.
As a result, using a few docker commands, you get the full stuff ready to test!
Note that it will take some time for the server, at the very first connection, for intializing all its services, up to 10 minutes.
Next step is to connect to your new portal on your server public IP address, and set up correct DNS entries for it.
The first time you connect, the system is self-configuring for several minutes, it can be long and increase your server load a lot.
You can now access a full admin console where you can pick up modules you want to enable and set up various services:
For instance, you can configure your email server and set users:
But, probably, one of the most interesting part of OnlyOffice is their wordprocessor, spreadsheet, and presentation software, with online collaboration in realtime.
I had an opportunity to try it “in real life” recently. My 12-yo daughter has written her first novel, and she needed some reviewers. We uploaded her draft to my instance of OnlyOffice and then we could read, make comments, suggest corrections in realtime from different places:
Updates are shown very close to real time, and it’s very comfortable to use, even with three people at the same time on the same document.
Same goes with spreadsheet and presentation. It’s easy to set up access permissions and send a link to anyone for instant collaboration:
An integrated chat also helps to talk about the document that is currently co-edited.
An interesting aspect of OnlyOffice is also that they have an installable mobile application (for iOS and Android). You can use it to access your document, either on the officiel OnlyOffice cloud, or on your own portal. It just needs the portal address and your login/password to give you access to your document for reading or editing:
Conclusion, pros & cons
I haven’t tested in depth all modules of OnlyOffice, in particular the CRM. The project management software seems to work well and is quite intuitive, and of course benefits from integrated document management.
So what’s bad in OnlyOffice?
I’m still struggling to setup an email server. Even by following recommendations and setting up DNS entries cleanly, the system is always complaining. Probably I did something wrong (tried twice from scratch though). On that aspect I found iRedMail to be far more easier to setup.
The calendar feature is OK, but it’s doesn’t offer a good synchronization such as a CalDAV service. As far as I have tested, it can only export an iCal link, so you can add your OnlyOffice calendar to your mobile app, for reading only. And on iOS it doesn’t seem to autosync, so you’ll have to load the URL manually to get new events. Just not usable in real life.
As for Office software, one can regret that it is converting formats to the open, while proprietary, Office Open XML (.docx) format. I think this aspect really needs to be considered seriously since OnlyOffice is an Open Source solution.
Again about Office software, regarding the user interface: while I find it clean, good-looking and very intuitive, there still are a few glitches. For instance, when inserting a comment, the comment panel is hiding the commented text until you start editing again, and this is annoying. Also, the page numbering should be improved: it’s updated only if you are clicking into a page. It should instead probably follow the page that you are currently looking at (useful when scrolling accross pages).
I also noticed that the installed system is using a lot of resources on the server. It needs a lot of RAM and several CPUs to behave smoothly. Maybe it’s because the whole system has been designed in Mono (.net), which may not be that efficient on a Linux server.
Anyway, my overall feeling about OnlyOffice is really great. It’s a realistic way to protect your privacy and regain control on your data. I’m considering to switch all my documents to this plateform soon.
You should probably consider it for your organization or even for your personal use.
— Gaël Duval 2017 – Interested in open source, mobile operating systems, data privacy? Follow me on Twitter
 Disclaimer: I don’t have any interest in the OnlyOffice company and do not get any benefit from them for this article.