Microsoft Office 2010 Rocks Desktop, Fizzles Online

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.)

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