Microsoft Office Web Apps are officially live online. Businesses that rely on the Microsoft Office productivity suite now have new cloud-based options that foster sharing and collaboration with peers and partners, and enable mobile business professionals to remain productive using virtually any Web-enabled device from anywhere in the world with Web access.
You can now go to office.live.com, log in with a Windows Live ID, and launch the online equivalents of Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. The online functionality is much more limited than what the actual desktop versions of the Microsoft Office applications are capable of, but they do provide a Web-based alternative for creating, viewing, and editing Microsoft Office files.
The features that are there are familiar and consistent with the interface users are accustomed to seeing when working with Microsoft Office. What's better is that files maintain their look and feel--or fidelity--when switching from Microsoft Office to Office Web Apps and back.
Office Web Apps is not without its issues. It saves files using the Office 2007 and Office 2010 format, which includes an 'x' at the end of the file extension--for example '*.docx' instead of '*.doc'. Many businesses still use the old file formats, but in Microsoft's defense the "new," XML-based formats have been around for nearly four years.
Companies can use office.live.com as a free, standalone office productivity and communications platform. In addition to the Office Web Apps, it provides access to Hotmail for e-mail, calendar, and contacts, as well as Messenger for instant messaging.
While we're not directly comparing the features and capabilities of Office Web Apps against Google Docs here, comparing the two is still the proverbial elephant in the room. Certainly, Microsoft is crossing into Google territory by launching a free online version of Microsoft Office, but no more so than Google encroached on Microsoft territory by developing a Microsoft Office alternative to begin with.
Google is stronger at Web-based apps, and Google Docs is a more mature product as far as free online office productivity suites go, but each has its pros and cons. Those who are already comfortable with Google Docs should probably just stick with it.
On the other hand, those who rely primarily on locally-installed Microsoft Office applications should definitely take a look at how Office Web Apps can enable better sharing and collaboration, and allow mobile users to be more productive. While Google Docs can provide similar capabilities for Microsoft Office users, it is like using the handle of a screwdriver to pound in a nail. It will work, but it's not the most elegant solution.
Microsoft's Office Live, and Office Web Apps are supported in Internet Explorer 7 and higher, Google Chrome, Firefox 3.5 and higher, and Safari 4 and higher, as well as through many smartphone Web browsers. iPhone and iPad users are out of luck, though, as the Safari browser used on those platforms is incompatible with Office Web Apps. You can view Office Web Apps files from an iPhone or iPad, but attempting to edit files or create new ones seems to just freeze the browser.
Follow Tech Audit on Twitter.