Office 2010: Desktop Heavyweight, Online Weakling

Microsoft's suite upgrade is solid. But the accompanying Web Apps are surprisingly puny.

By  |  Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 8:00 am

At an event this morning in New York, Microsoft is formally launching Office 2010, its accompanying Office Web Apps, and the SharePoint 2010 collaborative platform. The hoopla today is aimed at business customers–consumers won’t be able to buy Office in retail stores or get it preinstalled on PCs until June 15th, and while Microsoft hasn’t guaranteed a timetable for the consumer versions of the Web Apps, it says it expects them to arrive at the same time as the desktop suite.

I was a fan of Office 2007 and its radically new Ribbon interface. And I mostly like Office 2010, which hasn’t changed radically since I first tried last July in preview form. Compared to Office 2007, it’s got a cleaned-up, more customizable version of the Ribbon. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint all have new features for collaborating online and creating slick, visually rich documents. PowerPoint benefits especially, gaining built-in video editing and playback, smooth new transitions, and a tool for broadcasting slideshows across the Web.

In Office 2007, Outlook’s interface didn’t receive the full Ribbon treatment. It gets it for 2010, along with better tools for decluttering your inbox and a Gmail-style conversation view. (This last feature is turned off by default, based on popular demand from beta testers, but it’s there if you want it.)

One of Microsoft’s most-touted new features is something called Backstage View, which rolls printing features and other document-wrangling tools into a sort of mega-dialog box that takes over the whole document window. It’s a mostly successful rethinking of the old File menu, but beta testers had trouble finding it in prerelease versions of Office 2010–so Microsoft labeled it “File” while still calling the feature Backstage View in the online help. That seems like a recipe for confusion. I also don’t understand why opening and saving files takes you to Backstage View, then immediately abandons it for traditional dialog boxes.

For homes with multiple PCs that don’t need Outlook, Office 2010 is a deal: The $149.99 Home and Student edition packs Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint, and Word, and lets you install the suite on up to three computers for simultaneous use. (In other words, it’s the economical Family Pack option that Microsoft won’t give Windows 7 buyers.)

More businessy versions with additional apps include the $279.99 Home and Business edition and $499.99 Professional edition. Some stores will also sell discless, discounted “Product Key” editions that provide licenses for use with a pre-installed trial version of Office or a copy you download–but these strike me as a tad pound-foolish for most buyers, because they tie the suite to a single PC and can’t be reused even if you buy a new computer and remove Office from the old one.

All in all, Office 2010 keeps Office 2007′s emphasis on simplicity while adding power-user features that were in relatively short supply in that upgrade. It’s appealing evidence for the continuing relevance of desktop applications in an ever-more Web-centric world.

But then there’s Office 2010′s biggest nod to the Web: the Office Web Apps, which bring Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote to your browser for the first time.  Years after Google Docs and Zoho built purely Web-based Office rivals, Microsoft is finally responding, with online versions of its major apps which are free whether or not you buy Office 2010.

And I’m both disappointed and puzzled by them.

Full disclosure: I used prerelease versions of the versions of the Web Apps aimed at consumers, which will require a Windows Live or Hotmail account. (I didn’t try the corporate editions, which are similar in functionality but work with a SharePoint server.) I encountered a few mysterious glitches, most notably with the features which let the Office 2010 desktop apps open and save files on the Web. These difficulties, which a Microsoft representative told me were artifacts of the fact I was using prerelease Web Apps, made it impossible for me to fully judge the integration of Office’s desktop and Web flavors.

But the big issues I have with the Web Apps have nothing to do with bugs. They stem from basic design decisions Microsoft made. What it’s built feels like an online office suite created by a company that is less than thrilled with the whole idea of online office suites.

Good news first: The Web Apps are good looking, with Ribbonized interfaces that are pleasant to use even though they pack dramatically fewer features than their desktop ancestors. (Google and Zoho’s apps have interfaces that get the job done, but with a quaint Office 97-like feel.)

More important, Microsoft worked hard to preserve file compatibility with its desktop suite. Compared to Google Docs and Zoho, documents you upload are much more likely to look much like they do in Office, and when the Web Apps don’t support a feature–like multiple columns in Word or fancy transitions in PowerPoint–they preserve the formatting so it’s still there if you later open the file in a desktop app.

There are exceptions: Despite Office 2010′s emphasis on collaboration, Word not only doesn’t support revision marking but refuses to open any document with revision marks, period. It also had trouble with line breaks in some of my documents. On the whole, though, the fidelity is impressive, particularly in PowerPoint. And the apps appear to avoid Google Docs’ surprisingly stringent limitations on file sizes.

What’s Missing (Lots!)

The early versions of the Web Apps I tried last September were so full of glaring omissions that I couldn’t form an opinion. These new ones fix the two most obvious ones: You can edit Word documents, and OneNote is present and accounted for. But I’m still struck by how defeatured the apps are. I get that Microsoft looks at the Web Apps as complements to Office, not a substitute for it. Even so, I was startled to learn that:

  • Word, Excel, and OneNote have no printing features.
  • You can download documents to your hard drive, but only in Office 2007/2010′s file formats, which remain less than universally useful. (Neither Google Docs’ presentation app nor the one in Zoho can read PowerPoint’s PPTX files, for instance.)
  • You can’t create PDFs.
  • Word lets you insert clip art, but PowerPoint doesn’t, even though it needs this feature more. It also doesn’t let you draw simple shapes like squares, circles, and arrows.
  • Excel can’t do charts.
  • Charts and other graphics in documents you import are frozen in place, as are images you insert into PowerPoint slides.

Microsoft didn’t leave out these features because it’s impossible to do a decent job with them in a browser-based suite–both Google Docs and Zoho have ‘em all, plus many other offerings that the Web Apps lack. And even if you accept the notion that the Web Apps supplement Office rather than substituting for it, it’s impossible to argue that most of these features are unnecessary fripperies: Either Microsoft ran out of time and resources to do the job right, or it willfully made the Web Apps profoundly rudimentary. Or maybe a little bit of both.

So much basic stuff is absent that the sporadic instances of advanced tools feel like weird anomalies. PowerPoint doesn’t let you draw a plain rectangle but does sport the desktop version’s glitzy SmartArt features for creating infographics. It’s a little as if someone designed a car that could parallel-park itself but couldn’t be put into reverse.

The Web Apps’ approach to file management is also a nagging irritation. Rather than opening and creating files in the apps themselves, you do it in an external interface that requires you to click through multiple sluggish screens. Word, unlike other online word processors, loses your work unless you save it; Excel and PowerPoint autosave everything, and explain this fact via a prominent “Where’s the Save Button?” item in their menus that’s utterly superfluous after you’ve read it once.

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11 Comments For This Post

  1. Mike Cerm Says:

    Google Docs and Zoho just aren’t a threat to Microsoft. Until internet connectivity is cheap and ubiquitous, which they aren’t and won’t ever be (if the wireless carriers have their way), Office is going to continue to dominate. Even if connectivity weren’t an issue, which it is, Google Doc and Zoho don’t offer enough to have anyone seriously considering going totally Office-free. College students and professionals alike need to be able to double-click on a Word doc and have it open, regardless of whether they’re in-range of Wi-Fi.

    For a while, it looked like OpenOffice was gaining steam; it’s definitely closer to full-featured than the online alternatives, with the added benefit that it works offline. However, since upping their game with Office 2007, and pushing even further with 2010, Microsoft has really left OpenOffice in the dust. Sure, it’s not bad for free, but it’s got more in common with Office 2000 than with Office 2010.

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    I was excited by OpenOffice.org, too–it felt like the Firefox of office suites–but am sorry that it’s atrophied somewhat.

    –Harry

  3. heulenwolf Says:

    There was always something not quite right with OpenOffice’s handling and MS file formats that made it not worth it in a business environment. A missed page break in a 100 page document, some lost text formatting, similar features with different names buried in different sub-sub menus than they are in the MS equivalent all cost time even though they’re small issues. At $100-150/hr, all it takes is a few wasted hours of an engineer’s or manager’s time over several years to make that $499 price tag seem like a steal.

    Google docs is overblown. People talk it up like its the an Office competitor but its really not. There’s so much it can’t do that’s necessary in an office environment. Its handy for quickly viewing docs I’ve been gmailed and more convenient in the rare case of exchanging files in my personal life but my company would never put their IP on Google’s servers nor make access to critical documents so completely dependent upon Google’s continuing operation nor our ISP. It really isn’t a threat to Office in my corporate environment.

  4. IcyFog Says:

    When I can I use alternatives to Microsoft Office. For what I need, Google Docs and OpenOffice.org are just fine.
    In my opinion there’s too much crud in Office 2007. Frankly instead of making communication easier, Microsoft throws up barriers making communication harder and more dfficult.

  5. tben Says:

    I agree with IcyFog; Microsoft Office is too bloated. I’m sure every feature in Microsoft Office someone out there just loves and uses everyday, but, for most of us, Openoffice is probably good enough, and it’s free.
    Now if you are someone who needs that document to look it’s absolute best and need all the advanced tools, then Microsoft Office is the way to go.
    Oh, and did I mention Open Office is….free? :-)

  6. colinnwn Says:

    @Mike Cerm
    Personally I think Office 2007 and 2010 aren’t much of an upgrade from 2003. It has just slowed my productivity down some learning the new ribbon, which more than half the time doesn’t have the option I need, and I have to open the popout of the old UI menu boxes. I’m sure eventually it will become second nature. Access has some cool new features in 2007.

    @heulenwolf
    I imagine the same can be said of professionals transitioning from 2003 to 2007 or 2010. With a couple months experience, an intelligent person should be able to recover to normal productivity with Office 2007 or OpenOffice. But if a company chooses to switch wholesale to OpenOffice, your concern about messed up formatting shouldn’t be a big problem. The company should also switch to native ODF file formats, and only convert to Office formats when sending docs out of the company.

  7. Sarkazein Says:

    As a developer, the most important part of the Office Suite has always been the ability to integrate and automate nearly every aspect of every application, either using VBA within the apps themselves or through COM interop in the language of my choice. It’s so incredibly easy to do (for a coder) and so useful that with very few exceptions, I think I’ve used Office for that purpose in roughly 90% of the contracts I’ve done over the years.

    That’s the real appeal of the Office line of products and it has been since Office 4.3 (the one before Office 95). Yes, there are a ton of highly specialized features in most of these apps that will appeal only to the minority, but nearly everyone uses some part of Office daily in a professional environment, and being able to integrate directly with that to provide automated functionality more than makes up for the cost in nearly every situation.

  8. Resuna Says:

    There’s a reason menus and dialog boxes are universally used. They work. They’re discoverable. They’re predictable. You don’t have to be an expert user of a program to use it effectively.

    If your menus are badly organized and cluttered, reorganize them. Replacing them with a non-discoverable “ribbon” and “backstage view” is just abusing your customers.

  9. mtcoder Says:

    @ribbon haters. The ribbon is for tablets. The whole reason MS built / designed the Ribbon system is for tablets its touch friendly. You can easily reach 90% of all tools with just tapping the screen. Trying to do menu drag and drop on touch screens is much harder. Also the ribbon is super fast if you learn the short cuts. For example tap alt, press n then i and you get insert hyperlink. Doesn’t seem like a big deal till you have a programmable keyboard and you can program all those short cuts to keys. I have to do a bunch of images in my word documents. I have my “function 1″ key Not f1 but function 1 key set to do alt, n, p and it brings up my insert pictures dialog box. Play around with it just press Alt key and it will bring them all up. But the main reason for ribbon is touch screen. Same reason they changed how file paths are shown in Windows 7.

    Now for office 2010 and its trimmed down web parts. I think it’s more of get it out and let the developers build and comment on what they want along with normal users.

    biggest issue with going pure cloud is the cloud goes down your just F-ed. Think about what last year where Gmail was down for what was about 1-2 days depending on your location. Not having mail for 2 days at my former employer would cost about 2 million + dollars in revenue a day. So when you have a 4 million dollar glitch the CEO’s aren’t happy with IT.
    That is why Google docs works great for the small business but not the large scale guys. Not to mention security there is someone at Google who has full access to the files, or at least a chunk of the files, how much money to buy him off for your industry trade secrets? Pay him a few million and a house in cancun for the recipe to super secret sauce of greatness that puts the company out of being worth millions to worth nothing. Cause the cloud was violated. Sure you might get the guy and send him to jail for years and might get google to pay out the bucks to make the CEOs happy, but the little guy at the sauce factory just gets screwed.

    Just a bit to much risk. I mean my former company paid for military escort when we moved a mainframe from one building across the state to another one, just cause they didn’t want someone to hijack the truck taking the mainframe. No way in hell they let that data put “globably” hosted in a cloud.

    Another part of this is Microsoft is working hard on silverlight desktop integration, there is a part that deals with COM access from the browser further streamlining. They could be working / waiting to streamline the online office components into Silverlight more. Think about a silverlight application with full excel features, or using native word format for typing into text fields.
    So lots of possibliities.

  10. Backlin Says:

    colinnwn: I used to suffer from decreased productivity with the Ribbon as well. It was released just as I got out of my high school office class, so I had to re-learn some of the shortcuts. Luckily, most of the ones from Office 2003 were still there. After about two weeks of re-learning (on my own time), I grown to love the Ribbon.

  11. robsoles Says:

    hmmf, abandoned M$ products over a year ago and haven’t been happier.

    OpenOffice has replaced M$ nonsense at work – if you can’t get it to format correctly in OO then you are the problem. NO, I don’t work for nor contribute in anyway to the openoffice team. I just appreciate a good effort when I see one:

    Open ANY file format (M$ make a new one and OO just incorporate it), output ANYTHING as a PDF with no more installation than OO alone. Print ANYTHING etc etc.

    I would not ask my employer to store his data (live or backup) on anyone’s equipment but his own – a couple of tiny little targets for hackers as opposed to a series of highlighted targets all over the globe advertising their brilliance, security and “solid”ness at every opportunity.

    Take your M$Office and kindly shove it. Ubuntu + OO + Community make robsoles a happy guy!

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