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 on Monday is expected to announce a free product called Office Live Workspaces for accessing and sharing documents online, which will enter testing "shortly," perhaps later this year. The software is expected to allow the vendor an offering to make its "software-plus-services" strategy real to the average Joe.

Office Live Workspace let people can store, share, and collaborate on Word, PowerPoint, and Excel documents online and share their desktop with one another. "People are e-mailing documents all the time," said Eric Gilmore, a Microsoft senior product manager for Microsoft Office. "That's an inefficient way to do things when you want to work together."

Business users are desperate for better online, real-time collaboration, and Microsoft has been seen as a laggard behind the likes of Google, with its online Docs & Spreadsheets, and Zoho, which also offers an online productivity suite. Both are free, don't require a download, and let users edit and share documents online. So far, they have only some of the functionality of Office, particularly Excel and PowerPoint, and that's one of the main reasons they haven't been a big threat to Office's stronghold.

Office Live Workspace mixes Web functionality with a small download. With it, people can save a Word, Excel, or PowerPoint document to the Workspace Web site by clicking a toolbar button in their Office app itself. Authors can store, share, or allow others to comment on or even edit the documents, and have granular control over who they let in. The site lets non-Office users view and comment on documents as well as Office users. Much of that is reminiscent of what employees at larger businesses can do with SharePoint, though Microsoft won't say for now whether Office Live Workspace is based on SharePoint. There's also a tie-in with Outlook's tasks and events features, though Microsoft isn't yet saying how that works.

A desktop-based feature of Workspace expected to be available Monday as a beta, SharedView (formerly code-named Tahiti), lets people make and see changes to documents in real-time as well as share open applications. Participants will be able to see who made each change to the document in question. The person who initiates the SharedView session controls who gets to edit at any one time; Gilmore implies customers have mixed feelings about truly simultaneous editing. Though SharedView will become integrated with Office Live Workspace, there's no indication that it won't also remain available as a standalone product. 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.

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