Microsoft Office 2010 Rocks Desktop, Fizzles Online

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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