Sneak Peek: Microsoft Office Web Apps

Microsoft unveiled the much anticipated Web-hosted versions of its Microsoft Office suite of productivity applications this morning, albeit with limited fanfare.

The current versions are only a Technology Preview, designed to allow some tens of thousands of select users to kick the tires before the formal public beta begins later this year. While they lack some features, they’re off to a strong start.

Microsoft’s move to the Web comes as no surprise. Office has long been the Redmond-based giant’s cash cow, but it faces increasing competition from low-cost alternatives, including the open source suite and particularly from Web-based offerings from the likes of Google and Zoho. With Google promoting the idea that all software can run inside the browser, Microsoft has little choice but to nip its rival’s momentum in the bud.

After all, Microsoft was there first. Outlook Web Access was the very first AJAX application, and it duplicated the functionality of the desktop version of Outlook admirably. Microsoft has taken much the same approach in crafting Web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, but modern improvements in browser technology have made for an even more polished user experience.

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Bringing Office to the browser

“Web Apps” is the official branding for the online versions of the Office suite, and the name fits. These are real, standards-based Web applications — no Silverlight or ActiveX controls required. You don’t even need Internet Explorer, but you do need a modern browser: Firefox 3.5, Internet Explorer 7, and Safari 4 are the minimum versions supported. Microsoft won’t formally support Chrome or Opera,   but reps say current versions of those browsers will probably work, too.

The look and feel of Office Web Apps follow those of the forthcoming Office 2010 suite closely. Yes, that includes the Ribbon, love it or hate it; more importantly, icons, menus, dialog boxes, and other UI elements will all seem familiar to experienced Office users.

Microsoft’s stated goal is to replicate the Office UI completely — whether online or off, no matter what the device. That means support for mobile browsers is planned, too, although that capability isn’t available in the Technology Preview.

Part of replicating the Office experience is high-fidelity document viewing and editing. Fonts, graphics, and formatting are all reproduced in the browser window the same as on the page (which likely explains the need for a modern browser).

Internally, Office Web Apps use Microsoft’s troubled Office Open XML (OOXML) file formats, such as .docx and .xlsx, which debuted in Office 2007. You can upload documents created by Office 2000 or later, but they’ll be silently converted to OOXML behind the scenes. On the plus side, Microsoft does promise absolute file-format fidelity between the desktop and online versions of the suite. The shipping versions of the Web apps will also integrate with Office 2010, so users can choose to edit Web-hosted documents with the desktop version of Office if they prefer.

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As with most hosted software, collaboration may be the suite’s strongest selling point, though exactly what features you get will depend on which version you use. When they ship — probably in early 2010 — the apps will be offered in three different configurations.

As part of Windows Live, the consumer version will be ad-supported, with document storage provided by Microsoft’s SkyDrive service. A separate version of the suite for enterprise customers will be offered as a SharePoint-based service from Microsoft Online Services, and a third version will be included with every Office volume license purchase, for customers who prefer to host the apps on their own SharePoint servers.

All three versions offer impressive collaboration capabilities. Users can share documents with coworkers, and multiple authors can edit the same document simultaneously; change a formula in an Excel spreadsheet and the result appears in every author’s browser window in real time. The consumer version will offer additional intriguing features, including Bing search integration and the ability to easily embed Office documents in blogs, wikis, and Web pages (formatting and all). Similarly, the SharePoint-hosted versions of the suite will include enterprise features not found in the consumer version, such as auditing, document lifecycle, and backup and restore.

Make no mistake: As of now, these apps are works in progress. Many promised features have yet to be implemented. Most notably, the Technology Preview version of the Word Web App can view documents but not create or edit them, and the promised OneNote Web App is absent. Nonetheless, what we’ve seen so far shows a solid offering in the making. While not perfect, Office Web Apps should give Google a run for its money and provide current Office customers — particularly those who’ve purchased volume licenses — another reason to stick with Microsoft when the new version ships.

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