Microsoft Office 2010: A First Look at Excel Web App

This morning, Microsoft opened the tech preview of its long-anticipated Office Web Apps. Here's a first look at what the online version of Excel has in store.

From the online SkyDrive folders, you can access Office Web Apps via a drop-down menu.
It's clear from a glance at the Excel Web App interface that Microsoft has worked hard to deliver "fidelity"--the term the company uses for the consistency of experience between the desktop version of the application and what you encounter in the Office Web Apps version. Let's walk through the process of creating an Excel spreadsheet in Office Web Apps to see how well it turned out.

To begin, you log in to SkyDrive using your Windows Live ID. SkyDrive, Microsoft's free storage in the cloud, provides the backbone for much of the Office Web Apps functionality. At this point, the similarity between rival Google Docs and Microsoft's Office Web Apps is striking.

You begin by creating a file name for your new Office Web Apps Excel workbook.
If you select Microsoft Excel workbook from the drop-down menu, the app then asks you to create a name for your new Excel spreadsheet. You'll see a large thumbnail image on the right side of the screen that says 'Preview'; but since this is a new file with no information yet entered, the Preview is not very impressive. At this step, Office Web Apps Excel doesn't resemble Microsoft Office Excel at all.

The Office Web Apps Excel workbook looks virtually identical to that of the desktop version of Excel.
When you click Create, however, the fidelity kicks in. You'll encounter a brief delay while Office Web Apps creates the workbook, but afterward it displays a Web-based Excel workbook that looks identical to what you would see in a locally installed copy of Excel.

To create a roster for a Little League baseball team, I created columns for each child's name, age, position, and phone number. So far so good: All of the tools I needed for basic cell formatting seemed to be present. However, some of the things that I'm used to having in the desktop Excel--such as Merge Cells and Autofit Column Width--were missing.

Thankfully, because I have the desktop version of Excel installed, I was able to click the Open in Excel button on the Ribbon and work with my 'Team Roster.xlsx' file there. I could merge the cells at the top so that I could make a title for the spreadsheet that spanned the columns of data, and I could use Autofit to adjust the column width to match the data each contained.

Excel Web App includes formula functionality similar to that of the desktop version, but it is not as intuitive or robust. A formula bar sits above the cells. If you type '=' followed by a letter, it will display a drop-down menu of the available formula operators. You can drag the mouse over the cells to select the fields to include in the formula. I was able to add a field to calculate the average age of the players on the team, but the process was sort of clunky compared with what I am used to in the Microsoft Office version of Excel.

Entering and formatting basic cell data is the same here as you would expect in the desktop version.
The Excel application in Office Web Apps also allows multiple users to work with and modify the same workbook at the same time (OneNote also allows this type of cooperation). Individuals can collaborate together via the Web browser from anywhere in the world.

Office Web Apps does, in fact, deliver on the promise of fidelity in the look and feel. Creating my file in Office Web Apps Excel was essentially the same as doing so with the desktop version of Excel, and the same conventions (such as the Ribbon interface) provide a familiar environment.

The fidelity ends, though, for more advanced tasks. Though the consistency of experience extends to the interface and basic features, power users of Excel will still need to have the desktop version installed. Nevertheless, even power users will benefit from the ability to access and work with data via a Web browser from anywhere in the world, and to collaborate with peers or customers in real time.

Want to see more of the Microsoft Office Web Apps? Take a closer look at the PowerPoint Web App and Office Web Apps' sharing and collaboration features. At press time, Word and OneNote were not yet fully functional.

Tony Bradley is an information security and unified communications expert with more than a decade of enterprise IT experience. He tweets as @PCSecurityNews and provides tips, advice and reviews on information security and unified communications technologies on his site at tonybradley.com.

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