Microsoft has been hinting for some time at plans to not just rival but outdo Google Docs, and today we finally got a glimpse of what the company has in mind. Surprise: They're turning to an old dog that's going to learn some impressive-looking new tricks-Microsoft Office.
In demos at the very end of a long Professional Developers Conference keynote that also marked the public debut of Windows 7, a Microsoft Office team member showed how web versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote that will be bundled with the next release of Office will allow people to seamlessly collaborate on documents that can reside online or on PCs. (Microsoft later posted a news release about its plans to create "lightweight" versions of Office apps for the Web.)
In one of the demos, the keynote audience saw two people modifying a One Note document-one from within a desktop version of OneNote and another working on the browser-based version of the note-taking application. And in another, we watched a full-featured spreadsheet being modified in similar fashion, in close to real time (there was a slight lag).
The Webification of Office promises functionality that goes beyond what Microsoft already offers as Google alternatives in its existing Windows Live program-in fact, Microsoft says it will deliver the Office apps via Office Live. The beauty of this approach (and why it might actually succeed in winning converts from Google Docs) is that Microsoft starts the Web competition with a big advantage in terms of formats: Office documents remain the lingua franca of business communication.
The demos suggest that the problem of offline access would go away, since documents would be automatically synced (via Live Mesh technology). What remains to be seen is what you'd need to do to avail yourself of Web-desktop synchronicity-would you have to sign up for some kind of Microsoft collaboration service, or pay for storage space that Google now gives away for free?
We don't yet know when Microsoft plans to release the next version of Office (although if past history is any indication, it shouldn't be too long after Windows 7, which is still officially slated to debut in early 2010). But Microsoft has said it will be working on extending anytime-anywhere functionality to mobile devices (presumably Windows Mobile devices). In his remarks during both today's and yesterday's keynotes, Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie said over and over again that Microsoft intends to bring customers the benefits of the desktop, the Web, and mobility in the years to come.