Microsoft Office 2010 Rocks Desktop, Fizzles Online

At an event this morning in New York, Microsoft is formally launching Office 2010, its accompanying Office Web Apps, and the SharePoint 2010 collaborative platform. The hoopla today is aimed at business customers–consumers won’t be able to buy Office in retail stores or get it preinstalled on PCs until June 15th, and while Microsoft hasn’t guaranteed a timetable for the consumer versions of the Web Apps, it says it expects them to arrive at the same time as the desktop suite.

I was a fan of Office 2007 and its radically new Ribbon interface. And I mostly like Office 2010, which hasn’t changed radically since I first tried last July in preview form. Compared to Office 2007, it’s got a cleaned-up, more customizable version of the Ribbon. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint all have new features for collaborating online and creating slick, visually rich documents. PowerPoint benefits especially, gaining built-in video editing and playback, smooth new transitions, and a tool for broadcasting slideshows across the Web.

In Office 2007, Outlook’s interface didn’t receive the full Ribbon treatment. It gets it for 2010, along with better tools for decluttering your inbox and a Gmail-style conversation view. (This last feature is turned off by default, based on popular demand from beta testers, but it’s there if you want it.)

One of Microsoft’s most-touted new features is something called Backstage View (click image at left to enlarge), which rolls printing features and other document-wrangling tools into a sort of mega-dialog box that takes over the whole document window. It’s a mostly successful rethinking of the old File menu, but beta testers had trouble finding it in prerelease versions of Office 2010–so Microsoft labeled it “File” while still calling the feature Backstage View in the online help. That seems like a recipe for confusion. I also don’t understand why opening and saving files takes you to Backstage View, then immediately abandons it for traditional dialog boxes.

For homes with multiple PCs that don’t need Outlook, Office 2010 is a deal: The $149.99 Home and Student edition packs Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint, and Word, and lets you install the suite on up to three computers for simultaneous use. (In other words, it’s the economical Family Pack option that Microsoft won’t give Windows 7 buyers.)

More businessy versions with additional apps include the $279.99 Home and Business edition and $499.99 Professional edition. Some stores will also sell discless, discounted “Product Key” editions that provide licenses for use with a pre-installed trial version of Office or a copy you download–but these strike me as a tad pound-foolish for most buyers, because they tie the suite to a single PC and can’t be reused even if you buy a new computer and remove Office from the old one.

All in all, Office 2010 keeps Office 2007's emphasis on simplicity while adding power-user features that were in relatively short supply in that upgrade. It’s appealing evidence for the continuing relevance of desktop applications in an ever-more Web-centric world.

But then there’s Office 2010's biggest nod to the Web: the Office Web Apps, which bring Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote to your browser for the first time. Years after Google Docs and Zoho built purely Web-based Office rivals, Microsoft is finally responding, with online versions of its major apps which are free whether or not you buy Office 2010.

And I’m both disappointed and puzzled by them.

Full disclosure: I used prerelease versions of the versions of the Web Apps aimed at consumers, which will require a Windows Live or Hotmail account. (I didn’t try the corporate editions, which are similar in functionality but work with a SharePoint server.) I encountered a few mysterious glitches, most notably with the features which let the Office 2010 desktop apps open and save files on the Web. These difficulties, which a Microsoft representative told me were artifacts of the fact I was using prerelease Web Apps, made it impossible for me to fully judge the integration of Office’s desktop and Web flavors.

But the big issues I have with the Web Apps have nothing to do with bugs. They stem from basic design decisions Microsoft made. What it’s built feels like an online office suite created by a company that is less than thrilled with the whole idea of online office suites.

Good news first: The Web Apps are good looking, with Ribbonized interfaces (click image at left to enlarge) that are pleasant to use even though they pack dramatically fewer features than their desktop ancestors. (Google and Zoho’s apps have interfaces that get the job done, but with a quaint Office 97-like feel.)

More important, Microsoft worked hard to preserve file compatibility with its desktop suite. Compared to Google Docs and Zoho, documents you upload are much more likely to look much like they do in Office, and when the Web Apps don’t support a feature–like multiple columns in Word or fancy transitions in PowerPoint–they preserve the formatting so it’s still there if you later open the file in a desktop app.

There are exceptions: Despite Office 2010's emphasis on collaboration, Word not only doesn’t support revision marking but refuses to open any document with revision marks, period. It also had trouble with line breaks in some of my documents. On the whole, though, the fidelity is impressive, particularly in PowerPoint. And the apps appear to avoid Google Docs’ surprisingly stringent limitations on file sizes.

What’s Missing (Lots!)

The early versions of the Web Apps I tried last September were so full of glaring omissions that I couldn’t form an opinion. These new ones fix the two most obvious ones: You can edit Word documents, and OneNote is present and accounted for. But I’m still struck by how defeatured the apps are. I get that Microsoft looks at the Web Apps as complements to Office, not a substitute for it. Even so, I was startled to learn that:

  • Word, Excel, and OneNote have no printing features.
  • You can download documents to your hard drive, but only in Office 2007/2010's file formats, which remain less than universally useful. (Neither Google Docs’ presentation app nor the one in Zoho can read PowerPoint’s PPTX files, for instance.)
  • You can’t create PDFs.
  • Word lets you insert clip art, but PowerPoint doesn’t, even though it needs this feature more. It also doesn’t let you draw simple shapes like squares, circles, and arrows.
  • Excel can’t do charts.
  • Charts and other graphics in documents you import are frozen in place, as are images you insert into PowerPoint slides.

Microsoft didn’t leave out these features because it’s impossible to do a decent job with them in a browser-based suite–both Google Docs and Zoho have ‘em all, plus many other offerings that the Web Apps lack. And even if you accept the notion that the Web Apps supplement Office rather than substituting for it, it’s impossible to argue that most of these features are unnecessary fripperies: Either Microsoft ran out of time and resources to do the job right, or it willfully made the Web Apps profoundly rudimentary. Or maybe a little bit of both.

So much basic stuff is absent that the sporadic instances of advanced tools feel like weird anomalies. PowerPoint doesn’t let you draw a plain rectangle but does sport the desktop version’s glitzy SmartArt features for creating infographics. It’s a little as if someone designed a car that could parallel-park itself but couldn’t be put into reverse. (Click image at left to enlarge.)

The Web Apps’ approach to file management is also a nagging irritation. Rather than opening and creating files in the apps themselves, you do it in an external interface that requires you to click through multiple sluggish screens. Word, unlike other online word processors, loses your work unless you save it; Excel and PowerPoint autosave everything, and explain this fact via a prominent “Where’s the Save Button?” item in their menus that’s utterly superfluous after you’ve read it once.

If you simply click on a document’s name in the file manager, it gets opened in a preview mode that requires an extra click before you can edit it. A Microsoft representative told me this decision was made because the preview mode is speedier, and often all that people need; I also found that the previews preserved some formatting that didn’t show up in editing mode.

All the apps feature buttons that let you open the current document in the desktop version of the program in question (click image at left to enlarge). But the buttons are there in all browsers even though the feature only works in Internet Explorer. It’s also not entirely clear why you’d be working in a hobbled Web App in the first place if your computer was equipped with a desktop copy of Office.

What Gives, Microsoft?

Why did Microsoft create such meager Web-based version of some of its flagship products? Psychoanalyzing a humongous software company isn’t easy, but I’m going to try.

For several years, I’ve been discussing Web-based office suites with Microsoft executives responsible for Office. Up until the announcement of the Web Apps, nearly all of that conversation involved said executives rejecting the idea of browser-based suites becoming a serious challenge to Office in its traditional form.

They had a point, of course: Google Docs and Zoho are both impressive pieces of work, but when it comes to precision formatting and other power-user features they remain profoundly uncompetitive with Office 2010, in part because so much of what Office offers still can’t be replicated in a browser. As Web-based services, they’re also built to be used when you’ve got an Internet connection, which is a problem for virtually anyone who uses a laptop outside the home or office. (Google even abandoned Docs’ limited, Gears-based offline features recently.)

But Microsoft’s refusal to take Google and Zoho seriously wasn’t based purely on a dispassionate analysis of the situation. For a company with a decades-old, insanely successful business model of selling packaged software for hundreds of dollars a pop, the notion that far less sophisticated free services might pose an existential threat must seem either laughable or terrifying. In either case, it’s not surprising that the company chose to scoff at it publicly.

Once Microsoft revealed its plans for a Web-based Office in October 2008, the Redmondians I talked with were less dismissive about Web productivity apps…but only slightly so. They adopted a “software plus services” mantra, with desktop Office remaining preeminent and the Web Apps taking a decidedly secondary role. (Note that the company doesn’t even talk about “software and services,” let alone “services and software.”)

Consequently, it’s painfully obvious that the overarching design goal for the Web Apps wasn’t to build a better online suite than Google or Zoho–it was to buttress Office 2010. “Well, there you go,” the online versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint fairly shout. “Didn’t we tell you that browser-based services can’t compete with traditional software?”

The strategy might work in the short term–but it’s not an embrace of a Web-based future. If Google turns out to be right in maintaining that businesses will conclude that productivity should move to the cloud, Microsoft’s only rational option is to do everything in its power to create an online suite that’s as compelling as Office has been for the past twenty years. Instead, it seems to be doubling down on Office’s desktop heritage.

It’s as if 1980s software titans like Lotus and WordPerfect had responded to Excel and Word with fundamentally unambitious, unsatisfying Windows of their cash-cow DOS apps. Which, come to think of it, they did.

Of course, I could be misreading this. Maybe Microsoft’s goal with the Web Apps is to get something out there that it can build upon. The consumer versions are part of Windows Live: Microsoft has a good track record of releasing regular meaty “waves” of Live upgrades, and says that the Web Apps will be part of them from now on.

Let’s hope so–even if Office in packaged-software form remains the dominant productivity suite for another decade or two. Wouldn’t both Microsoft and Microsoft customers be better off if the online suite with the best chance of knocking off Office was Office?

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