File Under: Business, Software & Tools

MS Office on the Web: What it Is and What it Isn’t

The world’s most popular office software suite is making its way onto the web, but it’s doing so one baby step at a time.

As expected, Microsoft announced more details around its Office 2010 suite at an event in New Orleans Monday morning. Along with enhancements to the popular documents and productivity tools, the company also showed off how four of the suite’s key apps — Word, Excel, Powerpoint and OneNote — will be deployed on the web as browser-based applications. Microsoft also announced pricing and availability for Office Web Apps. Beta invites will go out in late August and final versions — both paid and free — will be available in early 2010.

Microsoft first unvieled working demos of these web-based apps in October, 2008 at a developer conference in Los Angeles, and Monday’s demos showed only a few new hints of what’s to come.

We won’t get our hands on Office Web Apps for another month, but what we do know is that they will be lightweight, dumbed-down versions of their desktop counterparts. They will remain closely tied to, and largely dependent on, the Windows desktop. This is understandable, since Office for the PC desktop has proven to be Microsft’s most valuable cash cow behind its Windows desktop and server products.

So while its competitors are gaining steam with full-blown productivity applications that run completely in the browser — namely Google Docs and start-up Zoho with its office suite — Microsoft is still firmly entrenched in the “software plus services” camp.

Here’s what we know about Microsoft’s web strategy for Office 2010.

Office Web Apps will be available for free

The four key Office apps — Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote — will be free to anyone with a Windows Live account, but according to Microsoft’s Office 2010 FAQ (a Word document), the free version will be ad-supported. Versions without ads will be available to people who buy Office Professional Plus and Office Standard 2010 licenses. The ad-free versions can also be made accessible privately by companies running SharePoint 2010 server.

If you’re a regular Jane, a grandpa or a poor student who wants to access the free version, you have to log in to Windows Live, upload a Word, Excel or PowerPoint document to your SkyDrive, then choose to edit it in the browser. You make your edits, save your file, then it syncs back up to your SkyDrive. Note this is only convenient if you already have a local copy of Office.

The experience has been dumbed down for the web

The Office Web Apps are not intended to be stand-alone applications for editing and composing documents.

The browser-based tools have the basics, like changing fonts and styles, creating lists and tables, or messing with rows and columns in Excel. But it’s obvious that the bulk of the functionality will be reserved for the desktop apps. Microsoft’s announcement positions Web Office Apps as offering “easy viewing and lightweight editing” — the word “lightweight” is used several times, in fact — clearly suggesting you’re only getting a taste.

The screenshots and official video demos that are available do not show any app-specific functionality for printing documents. There’s also no indication what sorts of tools exist for things like generating charts and graphs from scratch — something Google offers through its Chart API.

At any point in the online version, you can download your document and continue editing it in Word on the desktop. You’re even encouraged to do so — screenshots released Monday show a big button in the user interface inviting you to “Continue in Word” or “Continue in Excel.”

You won’t need to use Internet Explorer

In the FAQ, Microsoft says, “Office Web Apps are designed to work with Internet Explorer, Safari and Firefox.” Chrome isn’t supported because (Microsoft says) it has such minor market share.

If you want to see the apps running in Firefox, check out Robert Scoble’s video interview with a Microsoft representative, who shows how similar the experience is in both IE and Firefox.

You won’t need Silverlight

A few advanced functions of Office Web Apps will require Silverlight, but there’s no plug-in required for the basics like editing and saving. Almost everything is pure standards-compliant Ajax, so the apps won’t be crippled if you don’t have Silverlight.

The Office Web Apps demos I saw last October were powered entirely by JavaScript and CSS (just like competing apps from Google and Zoho).

Your docs will look really nice

If you read Microsoft’s press materials, there’s much talk about “preserving document fidelity” on the web, and it seems the company has paid particular attention to this. The interface even looks and behaves like the much-loved Ribbon introduced in Office 2007. When you open your document in the browser, it won’t break your formatting or ruin the indenting on complicated lists — a big gripe among Google Docs users.

The experience also degrades gracefully for smartphones, even the iPhone’s Mobile Safari.

There will be real-time collaboration

The web version of Excel will have real-time collaboration, meaning two people can edit the same spreadsheet at once and see each other’s edits.

Microsoft says it’s going to include real-time editing in Word and PowerPoint later, but that it chose not to include it in the initial release for technical reasons. Instead, you can enable e-mail and IM notifications that tell you when changes are made.

Both Zoho and Google Docs have embedded chat and real-time editing. Google’s implementation is still a little janky, but Wave, a similar Google app with more advanced real-time collaboration technology — you see edits almost instantly, right down to keystroke — shows even more promise.

Office Live Workspaces is kaput

Microsoft’s current implementation of document editing in the browser, Office Live Workspaces, is being discontinued and rolled into Windows Live. Expect everything to be rebranded and redirected to Office Web Apps when it launches in 2010.

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