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With major it players such as Cisco Systems and Google hard at work building productivity application beachheads on the Web, now is a good time for enterprises to evaluate the benefits of and drawbacks to deploying hosted office tools such as e-mail, instant messaging, calendars, documents, spreadsheets and databases in their infrastructure.

Cisco, which picked up the hosted WebOffice service as part of its March acquisition of WebEx, and Google, which launched its Google Apps Premier Edition at the end of February, are providing browser-based hosted office productivity tools that interoperate with or mimic Microsoft’s popular desktop-­based Office suite.

While neither WebOffice nor Google Apps can be considered a drop-in replacement for Microsoft’s Office, both products are well worth consideration—particularly for small and midsize businesses that have outgrown e-mail-based collaboration. Because of their hosted nature, the products should be especially attractive to organizations that have no or little IT expertise.

WebOffice and Google Apps approach the goal of making the Web a more productive place differently, but they share some basic characteristics.

First, both products take information that historically has been passed from person to person through e-mail and make these documents, spreadsheets and sometimes databases available to groups of people who can work on the information together. Both products also use shared calendars to help coordinate work.

Of course, as Web-based services, both products also depend on reliable, fast Internet access, and it’s this dependency that presents some particular challenges for companies looking to deploy these services. For example, when it comes to secure access and data privacy, we think the on-demand collaborative tools we’ve tested have much more development work ahead of them.

Google has taken a step in the right direction by providing a method for using SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language) to provide single sign-on access.

We delve further into data security particulars in the individual WebOffice and Google Apps reviews we’ve written for this package, but, generally speaking, organizations that are considering on-demand collaborative tools must consider what it means to leave confidential data in the hands of a service provider.

For the most part, we think the risk of data theft from either Google or Cisco is acceptably low. The greater risk, in our estimation, stems from employees who will now be able to access data via a Web browser from any system connected to the Internet.

Public terminals and poorly secured home systems must be assumed as the entry point for many employees who will use on-demand productivity tools.

We also have concerns for data privacy for on-demand systems. Data mining, even if only in aggregate form, government agency requests and court subpoenas are all methods that could be used to discover and disclose information that might otherwise be more tightly controlled if left in the hands of an organization’s IT department.

Beyond data security and privacy concerns, the chief missing ingredient in Web-based applications, relative to their fat-client rivals, is the full-fledged offline support that mobile workers require to process collaborative materials without always being connected to the Internet.

Google Gears, which began early release beta testing this month, takes a step in that direction by providing open-source browser extensions for offline use.

Google also launched Google Apps with a decent-size roster of partners, some of which provide two-way synchronization capabilities with BlackBerry and other mobile devices. We’d like to see Cisco’s Web­Office provide more options for offline working capabilities.

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