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Microsoft Joins Online Productivity Battle With Office Live Workspaces

The software lets people store, share, and collaborate on Word, PowerPoint, and Excel documents online and share their desktop with one another.
Microsoft admits it hasn't been exactly forthcoming with its collaboration plans for Office until now. "We've been kind of silent, and this is our coming out party of what software plus services means to people," Gilmore said. However, the space seems to grow and shift every week -- Adobe announced Monday it was joining in as well by buying Buzzword, which makes a Flash-based word processor that has a more familiar look and feel than some of the other online productivity suites. All the more reason for Microsoft to act quickly and update often.

SharedView gives some indication Office Live Workspace could be ad-supported; SharedView already serves ads to those who aren't leading the session. Microsoft won't say whether ad support is part of the picture for the final version of Office Live Workspace, though.

It's also not clear whether or how businesses will be able to deploy Office Live Workspaces more broadly to their employees or manage its use. Many of the scenarios it enables are covered by other business-class offerings like Groove, Live Meeting, and SharePoint. If it takes off, however, Office Live Workspace could be attractive to businesses and individuals alike because it's free and accessible from anywhere. It might, for example, be a good way for companies to collaborate with customers who don't have access to apps inside the corporate firewall or when employees are working from home in the evening. However, businesses may have concerns about compliance and security that come naturally when thinking about hosted services.

There are some kinks that may need to be worked out before Office Live Workspace gets released. In SharedView, for example, a session leader who's given up control of an app to a colleague gets that control back by clicking the mouse. However, that means using the mouse and switching between apps is out of the question for the session leader if someone else is editing the document. If you've given control away, you don't want to accidentally take it back. Also, there's currently no way to chat in the beta, and while the final version won't get full-fledged instant messaging, it will get the ability to "send notes" back and forth. A post by one of SharedView's lead developers on a Microsoft forum notes that Microsoft is "investigating and prioritizing" APIs and integration with Microsoft Communicator for future development.

Microsoft still doesn't offer a fully online office productivity suite like Google, Zoho, and now Adobe, some features of Office Live Workspace -- the things that require a download -- won't work with a Mac or Linux, and Office Live Workspace requires Internet Explorer or Firefox to run.

However, Microsoft promises more offerings toward its vision of software plus services. If this one works as promised, it's an encouraging direction.