Microsoft is encouraging Office PWAs, which could change how you work with apps

Microsoft's Office PWAs are designed to offer all the convenience of Microsoft 365, without the need to install anything.

office app vs office pwa Microsoft
Mark Hachman / IDG

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Recent reports say that Microsoft may be pushing Office PWAs to Windows Insiders without their permission. While we’d hope that practice never goes mainstream, it’s worth learning briefly about what the Office PWAs actually are, and how they can help.

First, here’s what’s happening: Windows Latest reported Wednesday that members of the Windows Insider beta program were being pushed the various Office apps as Progressive Web Apps, or PWAs, without opting in. Remember that Insiders have to specifically opt in to this beta program, and receive new builds as a matter of course. WL also reported that these PWAs were being pushed to a subset of Insiders. In other words, chances are that this won’t happen to you anytime soon.

office app vs office pwa Microsoft Mark Hachman / IDG

Chances are that your Windows 10 PC already has an Office app (left). The Office PWA (right) looks a little prettier, with new navigation options along the left-hand pane.

What’s a PWA?

A PWA is, essentially, a webpage saved as an app that can be listed in your Windows 10 Start menu. Microsoft 365 apps (formerly Office 365) can exist either as a dedicated app that runs directly on your PC, or as part of the Office service (aka Office Online) living in the cloud. If you’re like me, you probably go back and forth between online and local apps without thinking about it. I’ll create new benchmark spreadsheets in my local copy of Excel saved on my hard drive, but I have PCWorld’s templates and other spreadsheets saved to an Edge bookmark. My experience with both is essentially the same.

One big advantage of a PWA: Instead of downloading and installing anything, the PWA lives in the cloud. You’ll still need a Microsoft 365 license, but you can be up and running in a second or two.

What Microsoft seems to be doing is pushing these PWAs or webpages down to your PC and placing them alongside the dedicated Office apps already in your Start menu. Yes, that’s unnecessarily confusing. But it does go to show that the two experiences are almost identical. If you’d like, you can try it yourself: Using Edge, visit Office.com and click the little '+' sign at the edge of the URL bar, next to the tiny star that designates a favorite website. Click it, and the Office PWA will be added to your Start menu. 

Microsoft word v word PWA Mark Hachman / IDG

While you can see some obvious differences between Microsoft’s 365 Word app (left) and the simplified PWA to the right...

If there’s any downside to this, it’s that now you have two Office apps living next to one another, and it’s really difficult to tell one from the other. But there is a good reason to do this.

For one thing, any app that lives in the cloud can be managed by a developer like Microsoft, which can issue patches and updates extremely quickly. Historically, new features that Microsoft announces for Microsoft Office are deployed to the online versions of Office first, then to the version of Microsoft Office that lives on your PC, and later to mobile apps for iOS and Android.

It’s also possible that a PWA may consume fewer computing resources over time than a dedicated app. My quick comparisons of opening a spreadsheet with Excel and the Office PWA didn’t show meaningful differences, however.

Microsoft excel v excel edited PWA Mark Hachman / IDG

...the Excel experience in the Microsoft 365 app to the left and the PWA to the right are very similar.

Think of the Office PWA as you would your PC’s touchscreen. There’s nothing saying that you have to use a PWA. But they’re a convenient option if it’s simply more convenient to work from a tabbed web interface than a dedicated app. 

There’s one major problem with a PWA, however: Microsoft’s Office PWAs apparently don’t work offline. If your Internet connection goes down, you won’t be able to access the app at all. That’s (hopefully) a rare occurrence. 

So far, Microsoft representatives haven’t responded to a request for comment on whether PWAs will be more heavily emphasized going forward. If Microsoft does do this, however, you should have a better idea of how your virtual workspace may change. 

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