Review: Microsoft Office Web Apps

We weigh the online versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint to see how they stack up as standalone productivity apps -- and against Google Apps.

Ivan Schneider, Contributor

May 26, 2010

10 Min Read

Image Gallery:  Microsoft’s Office Web Apps

Image Gallery: Microsoft’s Office Web Apps

(click image to view gallery)
Image Gallery: Microsoft’s Office Web Apps

Microsoft reports more than 7.5 million downloads of the Office 2010 Beta, and Office Web Apps ranks among the most highly anticipated features in the imminent release of the software. But are Office Web Apps worthwhile as separate offerings, or are they only meaningful as part of the larger fabric?

Office Web Apps, as a browser-based deployment of office productivity software, ostensibly squares up against competitors including Google Docs, Zoho, Adobe Buzzword and others.

In their current incarnation, however, Office Web Apps do not appear designed to win a feature comparison faceoff against Google Docs or other online office productivity applications. With Google Docs, Google aims to create an online substitute for the Microsoft Office suite, allowing users to create, edit and share documents online, plus offline with the addition of Google Gears. By contrast, the functionality offered through Office Web Apps is far more basic, better suited to making minor corrections to existing documents than to creating documents wholly online.

The likely logic behind these divergent design decisions stems from the relative diversity of Microsoft's business compared to that of Google's. Microsoft makes most of its revenue from selling software licenses to OEMs, consumers, and enterprise customers, whereas Google makes more than 96 percent of its revenue from search-related advertising.

It's to be expected, therefore, that free products from Microsoft are primarily designed to convince you to buy software, while free products from Google entice you to remain within the Google fold, such that you continue to conduct searches through the Google search engine rather than exposing yourself to competing advertising channels and user experiences.

With these differences in mind, we can better understand the companies' respective design choices. By themselves, the Office Web Apps may not reshape the computing world. In combination with other features of Office 2010, however, these humble Web services may help Microsoft turn the tables on its upstart online challengers, regaining its once-dominant prominence in 21st century computing.

Installing Office Web Apps

Office Web Apps can be tested by themselves, in conjunction with the Office 2010 Beta, or as part of the Office Professional Plus 2010 Trial Version.

The easiest test-drive skips the Office installation completely. When I uploaded a .doc file to "SkyDrive," Microsoft's 25-gigabyte online storage area included with an existing Windows Live account, I was invited to try Office Web Apps without having to install any other software.

Otherwise, the path to Office Web Apps goes through an installation of Office 2010. The Office Home and Business 2010 Beta includes new versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and OneNote, all of which are scheduled for release to the consumer market in June.

For IT professionals and developers, the Office Professional Plus 2010 Trial includes new versions of the entire Office Professional suite, but this approach requires a full installation that replaces existing installations of Office, for which Microsoft highly recommends using a spare PC. For the purposes of the InformationWeektest-drive of Office Web Apps, the Office Home and Business 2010 Beta was deemed sufficient.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the Office 2010 Beta is the delivery method of the software. Instead of the user having to download and install a multi-gigabyte installation package, the entire suite is delivered via Click-to-Run technology based on Microsoft App-V. This technology, known as application virtualization, enables Office 2010 to run alongside earlier versions of Microsoft Office as well as on systems using applications incompatible with traditional, CD-based Office installations.

Furthermore, application virtualization makes it possible for licensed applications to follow individual users instead of being tied to specific PCs. For example, if an enterprise institutes a hot-desking system within a facility or lab, application virtualization can enable streaming of each individual's licensed applications on an as-needed basis.

Instead of having to provision each workstation with the maximum possible configuration encompassing every part of the Office suite, an individual can log into any given workstation and have required applications streamed within minutes to the local environment, with no drop-off in performance or capability to the end user, while enabling greater manageability and standardization for the IT organization.

In any assessment of the relative merits of Office Web Apps compared to other online alternatives, it's important to consider that application virtualization has the substantive impact of removing some of the key drivers behind the need for browser-based office productivity applications in the first place.

For example, if you've ever been forced to use a browser-based word processor or spreadsheet because of incompatibilities between previous versions of Microsoft Office and other mission-critical applications, now you can reconsider Office 2010.

Similarly, if you you've ever been pushed to choose between over-provisioning enterprise workstations and switching to a lower-cost, online alternative, a deployment of Office 2010 with application virtualization offers a viable, user-centric alternative.

The Test Drive

Given that Microsoft has little financial incentive to make the free Office Web Apps as functional as the full version of Office, and because application virtualization enables the full version of Office 2010 to be deployed across a wider range of PCs than previously possible, it's not entirely surprising that the free Office Web Apps themselves have been provisioned with an anemic, underpowered feature set.

At the time of the beta, only the Excel 2010 Office Web App offered online editing, which similarly to the latest versions of Google Docs, permits simultaneous editing by multiple users. However, the core user interface lacked some of the basics that an ordinary Excel user might expect. Some examples:

  • You can't cut-and-paste cells from an Excel application window to an Excel Web Apps browser worksheet; Google Docs allows this.

  • You can't modify or even move a chart, and can only edit the source data; Google Docs allows you to create new charts.

  • While you can insert a hyperlink using the dialog box, if you enter an http address into a cell, Office Web Apps won't recognize it as such; again, this works in Google Docs.

Introducing A New Sharing Model

At this point, if you're tempted to dismiss Office Web Apps as an also-ran, you'd be well advised to reconsider. That's because the real impact of Office Web Apps is not whether it outperforms Google Docs on a feature-by-feature basis (it doesn't), but on how it fundamentally changes the workflow for business users who rely upon Microsoft Office products.

Previously, sharing documents called for one of two general approaches. The first approach was to e-mail or post somewhere online a Microsoft Office document to be opened by someone else with a licensed copy of Microsoft Office.

Image Gallery:  Microsoft’s Office Web Apps

Image Gallery: Microsoft’s Office Web Apps

(click image to view gallery)
Image Gallery: Microsoft’s Office Web Apps

The second approach was to transform the Office document into a PDF that could be e-mailed to anyone with the free Acrobat reader application installed. In both cases, the data within the document becomes potentially stale as soon as it is sent, and the user has to make a determination in advance whether the recipient is Office-enabled.

Now, through the "Backstage view of Office 2010, it has become just as easy to save a file to a Windows Live "SkyDrive" folder or to a SharePoint server as it is to save a file to a local disk.

Sharing a file from one of these Internet-accessible locations is much more than distributing a static copy of a file; instead, it's sharing a live link to the most recent version of a file, accessible to anyone using a modern browser or Windows-enabled smartphones.

Even if the editing capabilities of Office Web Apps remain weak, the underlying technology enables document sharing that not only retains the exact formatting of the original file, but also maintains workgroup or public access to the latest available data.

Unlike past upgrades to Office that required people to figure out how to deal with new file formats, this time it isn't the file format that's changing, but rather the way files are shared through business and social networks.

As individuals, workgroups, teams, and organizations move to Office 2010, their suppliers and business partners may feel the pressure to view those documents online instead of as attachments.

Soon, instead of receiving PDFs in your e-mail inbox, you may start receiving invitations to view Office 2010 documents located on shared folders within Windows Live and on enterprise SharePoint servers. Even if you haven't bought Office 2010, you'll still be able to view those files exactly as they were created, and in certain cases make small edits and annotations.

And in the process of viewing and editing those files, you'll likely end up with an active account on Windows Live with SkyDrive, which will exert a gravitational pull on your own workflow in proportion to the number of Office 2010 users in your supply chain. At some point soon, you may feel a nagging desire to make the overall collaboration process easier through a simple, quick, streaming download of one of the new Office 2010 applications.

And from there, perhaps you'll ditch your BlackBerry for a Windows Phone 7, start using Windows Live as your primary social network instead of Facebook, and spend your spare time playing Xbox games.

That's right, ladies and gentlemen: Microsoft has its mojo back.

See Also:

Microsoft Roundup: Office, Sharepoint 2010 Launch

Microsoft, Google On Office Computing Collision Course

VIDEO: 5 Reasons To Upgrade to Office 2010

VIDEO: Demo: PowerPoint Broadcast Microsoft Office 2010

VIDEO: Customizing Your Ribbon in Office 2010

VIDEO: Image & Video Editing in Office 2010

VIDEO: ReviewCam: Google Docs Gets Rewrite

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