I'm looking forward to Microsoft's browser-based edition of Office. While the company isn't leading the trend to cloud-based apps, it's certainly in the middle of the movement. Microsoft's suite will be released next year, but you can save money by accessing online office-style apps right now. In-browser productivity suites are typically free. Plus, I like them for lightweight systems, such as netbooks, where Microsoft's desktop suite feels too bloated for even typing.
Google Docs offers free browser-based productivity apps, with basic features that match the Office apps. While I often use that service, I'm especially interested in the Zoho suite. Its apps include a cleaner interface and a few features beyond Google's options.
The basic Zoho apps are free, but you can pay for more storage and features. A free account nets 1GB of space, which should be ample for most situations. (5GB costs $3 a month, for example.) The free account also includes versions of all of Zoho's apps, including a word processor, presentation app, and spreadsheet. You'll also get more powerful software, including a CRM tool, project manager, and meeting app. But those advanced tools can include an optional monthly fee for certain situations, typically adding support for more concurrent users versus the free edition
In addition to those tools that go beyond Google Docs, I like the clean, featured interface in Zoho Writer, Zoho Sheet, and other basics. Zoho borrows enough from Google, such as the list of documents in the left sidebar. But I can view multiple documents as tabs within a single page, and the rest of the interface feels more intuitive.
Office 2010 could swoop in to dominate online productivity apps. But Zoho's options can save you money versus buying a desktop suite right now. Especially if you're using older PCs, cheap laptops, or often swapping between computers, browser-based software can work better than desktop tools at a free--or cheap--price.
Zack Stern is building a new business from San Francisco, where he frequently contributes to PC World.