ZoooS takes OpenOffice.org to the Web

Start-up will target Microsoft Office customers, as well as users hesitant to trust free or low-cost online suites

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 the fact that their offerings are low-priced or free.

ZoooS LLC is one of the few vendors that isn't dodging the question.

At the Office 2.0 conference in San Francisco this week, the California-European start-up will preview a Web office suite that is based on the free, 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 440MB of disk space when installed -- ZoooS offers speedy access to 95% of the features and look and feel of OpenOffice.org, said ZoooS CEO and co-founder Hisham El-Emam.

"It's almost all JavaScript, so it runs really fast; you don't even need Google Chrome," El-Emam said.

ZoooS already has a "few thousand" paying users at several medium-size companies and its major client, the German Ministry of Education, making the 20-employee start-up already profitable, El-Emam said. The basic cost is $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 Inc., an early online office vendor.

Trying to match Microsoft Office breadthwise, however, hurt Ajax13's depth, according to a Computerworld review last year.

El-Eman split with Ajax13's co-founder, MP3.com founder Michael Robertson, last year, though El-Eman through Zooos, retains a small stake in Ajax13.

El-Eman's new approach delivers OpenOffice.org's deep feature set, multilingual capabilities (36 languages) and user interface, which is close, but not identical, to Microsoft Office.

ZoooS' 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 online and offline access. An Internet Explorer version is targeted for the first half of 2009.

El-Eman said a main goal with ZoooS is to target existing users of Microsoft Office. ZoooS can be more attractive on price against Microsoft, he said, and, at the same time, target 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 back end remains OpenOffice.org, he said. The only catch: Files are natively saved in OpenOffice.org's ODF (OpenDocument Format), rather than native Office or Office Open XML. ZoooS is working on making the opening and converting of Office files as fast and true as possible, said El-Eman.

He conceded 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 acknowledges that ZoooS isn't the first to take OpenOffice.org online. That would be Ulteo. El-Eman said Ulteo has no offline version today, unlike ZoooS, and differs in other technical ways.

What if making a dent in 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 Inc.'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 back end.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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