Microsoft's Office Web Apps: A Hands-On Report

The just-released Technical Preview of Office Web Apps is a still-incomplete piece of work that points the way towards Microsoft's vision of integrating Web-based and client-based versions of Microsoft Office.

When it launches next year, Office Web Apps will consist of four applications: Excel, PowerPoint, Word and OneNote. In the Technical Preview, many features are missing from the apps, and some are more fully developed than others. For example, in Word you can only view documents, while in Excel you can create spreadsheets, edit them and collaborate with other users. OneNote isn't available at all yet.

Even at launch there will still be some features missing. For example, only Excel and OneNote will allow co-authoring (letting multiple people collaborate on a document simultaneously). Neither Word nor PowerPoint will have those features at launch, although Microsoft says they will be added in the future.

Office Web Apps works on Internet Explorer (version 7 and later), as well as on Safari (version 4 and later) and Firefox (version 3.5 and later). Chrome is not supported. There was only one exception to this rule: If you're working on a document on Office Web Apps on your PC, and want to open that document locally in Microsoft Office on your PC, you'll need IE7 or later.

I used it on Windows, Mac and Linux platforms, and it worked the same on all three. You'll also need Microsoft Office 2003, 2007 or 2010 (also in Technical Preview) on your PC. On the Mac, you'll need Office 2008 or greater.

Understanding the Different Versions

Just as there are different versions of Microsoft Office, there will be different versions of Office Web Apps:

* The consumer version, which is what I tested, will be free, although "free" will come at a price when it comes to the user experience, because it will include advertisements. There are no ads yet, and so no way to know whether they will be disruptive or barely noticeable. As of now, Microsoft has no plans for releasing a for-pay consumer version of Office Web Apps that will allow you to dispense with the ads.

The consumer version is tied to Microsoft SkyDrive, Microsoft's free online storage service. That's where you'll store, create, edit and share your Office Web Apps documents. The service lets you designate certain folders as private and others as shareable with people you specify or with anyone.

* The hosted version will be available to business customers who pay for hosted accounts on Microsoft Online Services, which is powered by SharePoint. No ads will be in the interface.

* The corporate, in-house version is for enterprises with volume licenses for Microsoft Office and a SharePoint server. In this version, enterprises will host Office Web Apps on their own SharePoint server. No ads will be in the interface. Enterprises will not have to pay extra for this; it will be part of the volume license for Microsoft Office.

Most of the features of these three versions will be identical, although there will be some minor differences. Besides ads, the consumer version will include a feature that allows publishing to third-party blogs, Web sites and wikis, something that the other two versions won't allow. The other versions, though, will track document lifecycles, allow for backup and restore, and give IT staff control over how the application is deployed and used.

Your Office Home in the Cloud

Office Web Apps uses Microsoft's Windows Live SkyDrive online service as its home base. In order to use Web Office Apps, you navigate to a special area of SkyDrive, where you get 25 GB of free storage space.

From here, you can go to a My Documents page where you can create new Office documents, upload files, create folders, and manage sharing and permissions.

Click any document, and you'll see a screen that shows basic information about the document, including file size, the date it was created or uploaded, the last date it was worked on and so on. The page also lets people make comments about the document. You can view the document, edit it, download it to your computer, move it to a different folder, copy it and rename it.

Once you start using it, Office Web Apps looks and feels much like the client-based version of Office; in fact, it looks more like a polished client application than a Web-based one. It displays Office documents in full fidelity so that they look exactly the same way online as they do on your PC.

Excel

Excel is the furthest along of all the Web Apps in approaching the suite's final feature set and is currently the only app that lets multiple people work on a document at the same time.

It looks much like the Office 2010 version of Excel (including the Ribbon that users tend to love or hate and the redesigned Office button in the upper left-hand part of the screen). In other words, if you use Excel 2007 or later, you already know how to use the Web App version. Creating a spreadsheet, inserting formulas, handling tables, recalculating the workbook, etc. work exactly the same in the Web App version as they do in the client version. When you import a worksheet, it looks exactly as it does on the client-based version, including charts.

At this point, it's also a very stripped-down version of Excel. There's no way to create or edit charts, for example, and most of Excel 2010's features -- such as advanced formulas, control of page layout, ability to mark up and review spreadsheets -- are missing.

The Office 2010 version of Excel has seven separate tabs on the ribbon; currently, the Web App version has only two, and those two don't have all the features that their equivalent tabs have in Office 2010. However, if you import a worksheet that has a chart, and you edit the underlying data for that chart, the chart will automatically change to reflect the new data, just as it does in the client version of Office.

I ran into a number of problems when I tested this version. I could not paste data or text into a spreadsheet, for example, a problem that presumably will be fixed further on in the development cycle. In addition, I was able to view but not edit .xls files -- currently, you can only edit files in the newer .xlsx format. The same holds true for PowerPoint and Word -- you can only edit .pptx and .docx files.

Excel is the only one of the Office Web Apps that has collaboration enabled, and it worked as advertised. I was able to work on the same spreadsheet on both a Mac and PC simultaneously, and was able to see the changes on each machine made on the other.

However, there is no apparent way to lock the worksheet, which means that two people can work on the same cell simultaneously, overriding each other's work. In addition, when multiple people are working on a spreadsheet at the same time, the undo and redo functions do not work, making it more difficult to get the spreadsheet back to its original form. This is a problem that needs to be addressed in future versions.

PowerPoint

The Technical Preview of PowerPoint has fewer features than Excel. Creating new presentations from the Web at this point is rudimentary, at best. You can't, for example, apply themes or backgrounds, use animations between slides, or, frankly, do much beyond creating new slides.

However, adding new slides is exceptionally easy, and works much like it does in the client version of PowerPoint. And as with Excel, when you open documents that you created in the client version of PowerPoint, they look online exactly as they do when on your PC. You can also play presentations as a slideshow, and the presentation includes all the animations and special effects that you created in the client version of Office.

As with Excel, you won't be able to edit files created with an older Office file format -- no .ppt files. Unlike in Excel, when you open a .ppt file for editing, you have the option of immediately converting the file to .pptx, without having to go through the process of saving the file. Still, it would be better if it supported the .ppt format, just as if it would have been better if the Office Web Apps version of Excel supported the .xls format.

Word and OneNote

At this point, there's very little to be said about Word, because you cannot create new Word documents or edit existing ones in the Technical Preview. All you can do is view files. As with Excel and PowerPoint, though, the viewer is excellent -- files look identical to the ones stored on your PC. At launch, Word will lack one important feature of Excel and PowerPoint-- no simultaneous editing.

As for OneNote, it's not yet available in the Technical Preview, and as with Word, you won't be able to work simultaneously with others when it does launch.

What's Missing

The biggest issue with Office Web Apps isn't what's here, but what's missing and will be missing at launch: the ability to synchronize your work in Office so that, wherever you are, you always have the latest versions of your documents.

For all of its look-and-feel mimicry of Microsoft Office, at heart the Web-based and the client-based versions of the software are surprisingly separate from one another. This lack of integration and synchronization will most likely lead to a great deal of confusion about where the latest version of a document is located.

The problem is that there is no automatic synchronization between your work on your local PC and your work in Office Web Apps. Let's say you create a document in Microsoft Office, and want to work on it later when you're away from your machine. Before you leave, you'll have to remember to upload the document to Office Web Apps; if you forget, it won't be available to you.

After you've worked on it online, when you return to your main machine you'll have to remember to download the document to work on it. If you forget and work on it locally, you'll be working on a local version which differs from the latest version, which is stored on the Web.

Making matters worse is that when you upload a file from a PC to Office Web Apps, you're not given a warning if you upload a file that will overwrite the file that's already there. So it's very easy to overwrite newer work with older work.

This is a very significant shortcoming, and if it remains this way it launch, it will be at least one way in which Office Web Apps will be inferior to Google Docs. In Google Docs, this integration between online and offline is built in; you're always working on the latest version of your document, no matter where you are. Synchronization is built in -- assuming you've installed the Google Gears app, which saves documents to your hard drive. (On the other hand, Google Docs has its own shortcomings compared to Office Web Apps, such as an inferior interface and an inability to create documents as sophisticated-looking as those created in Office. )

What makes this deficiency all the more surprising is that Microsoft already has excellent synchronization technology that to a great extent solves this problem. Windows Live Sync automatically synchronizes files and folders among multiple PCs. If Microsoft were to link that synchronization to Office Web Apps, it could keep files in sync between your local hard disk and your Web-based SkyDrive store of information. However, at this point at least, that is not in the works.

Finally, sharing documents with others is awkward at best. You can't share individual documents. Instead, you have to share entire folders -- every document in any given folder is either shared with others or not.

The way you share is confusing as well, because it requires a multi-step process in which you can become easily lost. This is because it uses the SkyDrive interface for managing and sharing files. Microsoft would do well to change this before final release.

The Bottom Line

At this point, Office Web Apps is not much more than a glimmer of what the final version will be at launch. Based on what I saw, though, it will be a useful complement to the client-based version of Office. Its ability to display Office documents in all their fidelity is particularly noteworthy, as is the ability to work remotely on the same document with others. However, at this point it is not clear what features will be present or missing at launch, so it is too early to tell how powerful Office Web Apps will be when creating documents.

Despite that, it's already clear that the Web-based version of Office will find widespread use by almost everyone who now uses Office, not just for the Web-editing features but because it can be used to share documents with others.

However, the lack of automated synchronization of files between local computers and the Web is a very serious shortcoming. Because of that, Office Web Apps will not be as useful as Google Apps for those who often work on documents from different locations.

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