Microsoft Office Web Apps: Will Upgrade Lure Users?

Microsoft has added real-time co-authoring, offline capabilities and other enhancements. But many mobile users have already adopted alternatives.
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In May, Microsoft promised new versions of its Office Web Apps, with improved collaboration features, would arrive in the next few months. On Wednesday, the company released additional information about the update, including a video that demonstrates new features, such as real-time co-authoring, in action.

Microsoft Office dominates traditional productivity workflows, in which workers sit together in an office, speaking face-to-face and typing away on keyboards attached to PCs. But a number of recent trends -- such as increased interest in mobile workforces, remote collaboration and stay-at-home employees -- have had a big impact on the traditional model, prompting Microsoft and others to create new tools to connect a new breed of workers.

Among these tools, Microsoft's Web Apps, the browser-based versions of Office, have been modestly received. They have many uses, such as editing Office documents on iPads, which still lack native versions of the software. But Web Apps also require that users be connected to the Internet, limiting their usefulness as mobile apps. They also have fewer features than their desktop-installed equivalents.

[ Considering a move from Google to Microsoft? See Google Apps To Microsoft Office 365: 10 Lessons. ]

With the updates, Microsoft hopes to remove some of these shortcomings. Real-time co-authoring, which has been available in the standard version of the suite since Office 2010, will allow workers in different locations to collaborate on Word, Excel or PowerPoint documents. With the update, colleagues will see one another's revisions as they're made, without saving the document or refreshing the browser. The Web Apps will also feature additional social hooks, such as Yammer integration, to further facilitate teamwork.

The new versions also add offline capabilities. If a person is using Wi-Fi to access the Web Apps in a subway station but loses his connection when he boards a train, for example, he'll be able to continue working as he travels, and his changes will automatically be saved -- and available to any co-workers with whom he's collaborating -- as soon as he gets back online. The update will also deliver improved formatting features and richer charts and graphics.

The new features will be available through PC-based browsers, but in the video, Microsoft said the mobile edition of Chrome will be supported as well. This inclusion means that non-Windows tablets, such as iPads and Android devices, should gain many of the aforementioned enhancements. The company did not elaborate on any differences between PC and mobile-based browsers.

To those who already use Microsoft's Web Apps, the updates will surely be welcome. Even so, some competing products, such as Google Docs, have included real-time co-authoring for some time. Because Microsoft was somewhat late to the mobile movement, Web Apps might have to tempt users who've already adopted an alternative product.

In addressing the diversity of devices carried by mobile users, Microsoft faces a delicate situation. The company has ostensibly resisted calls to release a native version of Office for the iPad because it wants to leverage the software to boost adoption of Windows 8 tablets. Even the recently released version of Office for iPhones is a calculated risk. To a degree, the app negates one of Windows Phone 8's advantages over the iPhone. But because the release requires an Office 365 subscription, it's less likely to impede Microsoft's smartphone progress than to lure iOS users into the Office 365 fold.

Microsoft's hesitancy, though, has allowed a number of alternatives to emerge. Microsoft Office remains the desktop productivity standard, and that's unlikely to change, even as competing products advance. But if its reserved approach allows other products to gain traction among iOS and Android users, Microsoft might not achieve comparable influence in the mobile productivity game.

But as many PC loyalists like to point out, it's not clear whether mobile devices are well-suited to creating content, or whether their greatest value lies in mobile access to information. Time will tell, of course. Recent rumors suggest the new Web Apps could appear by this October.