Microsoft launches web-based MS Office apps

Today Microsoft rolled-out the first public Beta of Microsoft Office Web Applications, under the Office Online branding. This a useful new online service which offers a basic web-based version of popular programs like MS Word, MS Excel, and MS PowerPoint, which run in your internet browser.

MS Office Web Apps is delivered on the Windows Live portal, a comprehensive portfolio of online apps. Integrated with SkyDrive for web-based file management, Office Web Apps provides a convenient way to store, manage and edit documents and spreadsheets on any computer or device that has an internet connection and a reasonable web browser.

The new online version of Office apps is clearly being positioned in the marketplace as the number-one internet destination for handling documents and spreadsheets. It supersedes Office Live, a previous online incarnation of office which was first announced in 2005. The Beta of Microsoft's original web-based Office service was previewed in February 2006, throwing-down the gauntlet to Google who then had to play catch-up. However, it seems likely that aspects of Office Web Apps have taken inspiration from aspects of Google Docs which was released in late 2006. Google Docs was a reworked third-party product called Writely which was acquired by Google in March 2006, presumably as a strategic counter-attach against to Bill Gates’ 2005 announcement and the February preview of web-based Office.

The range of web apps available through Windows Live also includes email (Live Mail) and social networking (Live Spaces), internet search (Bing), information (MSN), and of course much more. There’s a mobile version of everything too, through Windows Live Mobile, optimised for mobile devices or low-power computers like netbooks.

18 September 2009

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Tim Acheson (18 Sep 09, 16:34)

Where Microsoft leads, others often follow (notwithstanding Google’s superior PR)

There is a popular misconception that Microsoft’s Office Apps is copying Google Docs. This fallacy has been embraced, swallowed, and regurgitated by Google fanboys -- so widely in fact that it has become received wisdom online.

Of course, in reality Microsoft’s plan for an online version of Office was announced by Bill Gates in 2005. The Beta was previewed in February 2006. Presumably Google did not want to be left behind, but it would have taken time to develop their own product to compete with Microsoft. In March 2006 they purchased a third-party product, and repackaged it as Google Docs which was released in October that year. (See above for more details of the timeline.)

Don't forget, MS Office's webmail client, Outlook Web Access, dates back to the year 2000 and that year's release of the Exchange mailserver platform.

Tim Acheson (19 Sep 09, 11:28)

I've been very impressed by Office Web Applications. I can see why it's getting good feedback from participants in this technical preview. Wow! Not bad for a version zero produc, eh!

It looks and feels more polished and commercial than Google Docs and it's very similar to the real Office software. It's fast and very responsive. It works on almost any platform. I can now display a PowerPoint presentation on my oldest Sony Ericsson mobile phone!

Office Web Apps works find without SIlverlight, though with SIlverlight the user experience is greatly enhanced, e.g. by extremely high-quality images and rendering, and an extremely fast multiple file upload feature based on Office Live Workspace.

Tim Acheson (23 Sep 09, 10:21)

I've been monitoring the response to MS Office Web Apps with great interest. While reading one fairly subjective comparason of MS Office Apps with Google Docs by a blogger on ZDNet, I noticed that he inadvertently highlighted one an important issue.

"...cloud-based word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software has been hampered among a sizable chunk of users by the perception that they need Microsoft Office on their desktops (no matter how small a fraction of its functionality they use)."

1. When decision-makers insist they know what their users need and want better than the users themselves, it's arrogant, patronising -- but more importantly it can lead to bad decisions.

Many commentators who leap enthusiastically onto the Cloud or Google Apps bandwagon seem willing to accept any explanation for the fact that many users like to use desktop software – except for the most obvious reason. We must accept that many users do prefer desktop software, and respect their reasons even if they can't articulate them.

Let’s not over-simplify this to a question of features. There are many issues here, e.g. the security concerns in the Cloud, familiar or trusted brand, user experience, performance/speed, design and colours, etc.

[Continued in the next comment...]

Tim Acheson (23 Sep 09, 10:21)

2. Many organisations spend much more than they need to on MS Office.

It's considered the norm at many companies I've encountered for every user to have the same edition of MS Office installed -- typically Professional edition -- even where there is no official common desktop environment. Yet for many users the Standard edition would suffice. Some users don't even need the whole MS Office suite. A stand-alone installation of MS Word would often do. The price difference between MS Office editions is significant, and the money wasted in this way is multiplied by the number of users. The one-size-fits-all approach is just bad, lazy IT policy. It's all too easy at a big company where it's somebody else's money you're spending.

I suspect this is what really went wrong within this ZDNet blogger's organisation. He openly asserts that his users were only using a "fraction" of the features of the software installed on their PCs. Who was responsible for allowing this to happen? Adopting MS Office Web Apps may look like an easy escape-route, but it can't cover-up a track-record of bad IT management.

I disagree with many of the assumptions and conclusions in the blog post in question, although I do agree that the polished, professional user experience with MS Office Web Apps is a strong advantage:-

"...the utterly polished presentation of Web Apps, even in very early beta, means that Google can hardly rest on its laurels in this space."
Tim Acheson (14 Nov 09, 15:31)

Update: Microsoft to launch FREE version of MS Office

The new MS Office "Starter" edition will be free, and will be pre-installed on many new PCs, just as MS Works was historically.

Robert Pratt (16 Nov 09, 14:43)

And the tradition of loading crapware on systems continues.....

Tim Acheson (17 Nov 09, 13:36)

Hi Robert, can you explain what you mean and support your opinion with some facts? Based on years of experience of reading anti-MS comments like this, I suspect you can't.

Tim Acheson (03 Dec 09, 15:26)

Anybody can start using MS Office Web Apps, right now! Web-based MS Office, and it's FREE! To activate MS Office Web Apps just download Office 2010 Beta, and save a file to SkyDrive.

Andy Buckingham (22 Apr 10, 19:43)

I wonder why Microsoft haven't just opened up the new web-based system so you can login and dive straight in to creating your first document? Seems odd to put up the barriers of downloading and installing a desktop product first.

Tim Acheson (23 Apr 10, 09:44)

Hi Andy, I noticed you've already joined Docs.com -- nice one! ;) Good question, and I wondered the same thing myself.

Regarding Microsoft Docs, there's no desktop software required for Docs.com. There's a "New Document" option, but at present you need to be an official Beta tester to use that (which requires an invitation code). They're expanding the number of participants as the Beta progresses. Eventually We'll all be able to just sign-in and do what we want.

On the Docs.com homepage, above the button you click to sign-up, it says:-

"While Docs is in Beta, we're gradually allowing people to create and upload their own documents. Join our wait list and we’ll notify you when these features become available to you. "

Regarding MS Office Web Apps, currently available through MS Office 2010 Beta and SkyDrive, my conclusion is that it's in Beta and not all features are available to everyone yet, so there's more to come. I'm already using it to view and edit my spreadsheets, documents and slideshows online through my regular web browser, and I love it!

I wrote a quick blog post on the new Docs web app just the other day, when it was launched.

Tim Acheson (04 May 11, 09:46)

A useful video on MIcrosoft Showcase: An overview of MS Office Web Apps

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