When asked if and how they plan to match Microsoft Office's unparalleled feature set, most online office suite vendors simply switch the subject, touting the superiority of their Web-based collaboration, and low or free price.
ZoooS is one of the few vendors that won't dodge the question.
At the Office 2.0 conference in San Francisco last week, the California-European startup previewed a Web office suite that is based on the free and open-source OpenOffice.org - Microsoft Office's main desktop competitor.
ZoooS offers Google Docs-like collaboration, such as letting users simultaneously edit the same document. And despite OpenOffice's size -- version 2 for Windows requires 440 MB of disk space when installed -- ZoooS offers speedy access to 95 percent of the features and look-and-feel of OpenOffice.org, said ZoooS' CEO and co-founder, Hisham El-Emam.
ZoooS already has a "few thousand" paying users at several medium-sized companies and its major client, the German Ministry of Education, making the 20-employee startup already profitable, El-Emam said. The basic cost is US$999 for a perpetual server license for 10 users, which includes installation support and a few basic support incidents after that. The price per user decreases as the number of users increases, he said.
This isn't El-Eman's first attempt at a Web office suite. The German-trained lawyer co-founded Ajax13, an early online office vendor.
Trying to match Microsoft Office breadth-wise, however, hurt Ajax13's depth, said a Computerworld review last year.
El-Eman split with Ajax13's co-founder, MP3.com founder Michael Robertson, last year, though Robertson retains a small stake in ZoooS.
El-Eman's new approach delivers OpenOffice.org's deep feature set, multi-lingual capabilities (36 languages), and user interface, which is close but not identical to Microsoft Office.
ZoooS's framework translates the OpenOffice.org code, making it browser-friendly. By the end of this year, the company hopes to have plug-ins and widgets for Firefox, Opera and several other browsers for both on- and offline access. An Internet Explorer version is targeted for the first half of 2009.
El-Eman said a main goal with ZoooS was to target existing users of Microsoft Office. ZoooS can be more attractive on price against Microsoft, he said, and, at the same time, will be appealing to users who are resistant to switch to something free (such as Google Docs) or very low-cost (such as Zoho) because they may be lacking in features.
ZoooS is also developing 'skins' for Office 2003 and Office 2007. Thus, users would get the Office user interface of their choice, even though the functional backend remains OpenOffice.org, he said. The only catch: files are natively saved in OpenOffice.org's OpenDocument Format (ODF), rather than native Office or Office Open XML. ZoooS is working on making opening and converting of Office files as fast and true as possible, said El-Eman.
He concedes that ZoooS competes with the desktop version of OpenOffice.org. As a result, attempts to forge an alliance with the open-source group "weren't really successful," he said, despite promises to release ZoooS' code as open source via the GPL (General Public License) within the next six months.
El-Eman also admits that ZoooS isn't even the first to take OpenOffice.org online. That would be Ulteo. El-Eman says Ulteo has no offline version today, unlike ZoooS, and differs in other technical ways.
What if making a dent into Microsoft Office's dominance proves too difficult? El-Eman has a Plan B: to use the ZoooS framework to help desktop app vendors take their products online.
ZoooS has already reverse-engineered a prototype of Apple's personal database, FileMaker Pro, which can open FileMaker files and mimic some of its features and user interface. However, it cannot use FileMaker's proprietary code as its functional backend.