Microsoft Office’s Slow Road to the Web: First Hands-On Look

Is this technical preview promising? It's too rough and incomplete to tell.

By  |  Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 11:49 am

Microsoft Office LogoLast October, Microsoft casually dropped a bombshell at its PDC event: It was working on a new version of Microsoft Office that would include browser-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. The Web version of Office is part of the suite later officially dubbed Office 2010, which won’t arrive until next year.  But it tiptoed a little closer to reality today: Microsoft has released a “technical preview” of the Office Web Apps, a pre-beta, invite-only test version which it’s using to get early feedback from a limited number of users.

If you’re not one of the lucky few, don’t feel too deprived: Microsoft provided me with access to the technical preview this morning, and judging from my first couple of hours with it, it’s a very incomplete rough draft of the Web-based suite to come. Word only lets you view documents, not edit them; Excel and PowerPoint are missing wide swaths of basic functionality; OneNote is missing altogether. Two of the most useful-sounding features–the ability to open documents stored on the Web from within a local copy of Office as if they were stored on your hard drive, and to view documents in phone browsers–aren’t ready yet. And I encountered multiple technical glitches as I tried to use the features which are available.

In short, this preview really is a preview; it’s not yet ready for even simple real-world tasks, and nobody but nobody is going to dump Google Docs or Zoho to use it. Think of it as the first trailer for a movie that’s still in production and many months from release.

Having spent brief hands-on time with the Office Web Apps, it looks like Microsoft has focused on two core goals so far: getting file importing right (the Office files I uploaded and opened preserved their formatting well) and mimicking the Office 2007 interface (the Office Web Apps have the Ribbon toolbars and are, on the surface, slicker than their Google and Zoho counterparts).

(Note: I haven’t yet tried the collaboration features, which include simultaneous real-time editing of a single workbook in Excel.)

Here’s Excel:

Office Web Excel

Here’s PowerPoint:

Office Web PowerPoint

Here’s Word (it’s missing the Ribbon toolbar because it’s still only a simple file viewer):

Office Web Word

And here’s the file manager you use to upload, store, and open documents (it’s in Windows Live SkyDrive, which the consumer versions of the Office Web Apps will use for storage):

Office Web SkyDrive

Judged as static screen shots, the above apps may already look pretty polished. But even though Excel already has a meaningful subset of basic spreadsheet tools up and running, it still couldn’t do anything with the chart shown above. (It’s also not working for me at all just now–even when I try to open a new workbook, I get an error message that I’m trying to do it in an unsupported file format.) PowerPoint doesn’t let you do much yet other than to edit text and display the slide show in your browser. And while both apps have buttons designed to let you launch a local copy of Office and edit the document you’re viewing in your browser, I’m having trouble getting them to work. (Microsoft says it’s still working on this feature.)

Some interface choices that strike me as quirky may get changed before the Office Web Apps are finalized. (Hey, Microsoft says it’s releasing this early version to get feedback.) The Web Apps have File menus, but they lack tools for uploading files and creating new documents–you do that out in the SkyDrive interface, and it involves a lot of clicking around. Excel and PowerPoint documents open up in a file-viewer mode; you’ve got to press a button to open them for editing, which seems like an unneccessary extra step.

Microsoft says that the Office Web Apps will work in IE and Firefox 3.5 and Safari 4 (on both Windows and Mac), but not Chrome; I couldn’t get even SkyDrive to work in Opera, and Excel was especially glitchy in Safari. The button to open a document in a local copy of Office is apparently IE-only, and some features will require the SilverLight plug-in.

Microsoft’s master strategy for making Office relevant on the Web still sounds as sensible as any: It plans to release a free Windows Live version of the apps for consumers and a paid SharePoint one for businesses, and to let large companies host the service themselves. It wants to let folks running Office as traditional software and those using it in the browser collaborate seamlessly on the same documents, and to let users store files in the cloud even if their copy of Office remains local. And it’s going to make the Office Web Apps feel like Office even if they lack many features in Office 2010. (It still isn’t clear just how rich the Office Web apps will be, featurewise–unlike Google and Zoho, Micosoft has a billion-dollar business in traditional office software to protect–but the Web version of Excel, though incomplete, looks like it should be fairly meaty.)

In the end, the rough state of this technical preview isn’t necessarily bad news–we already knew that Microsoft was years behind Google, Zoho, and specialists such as SlideRocket when it came to Web-based productivity, and the company has never claimed it was going to deliver a true Web-based version of Office before 2010. I was hoping that the technical preview would be far enough along that it would make clear that the Office Web Apps are on the right track–just as the first preview version of Windows 7 from last year was already surprisingly functional. But the Office Web Apps technical preview is not that promising teaser. Here’s hoping that it doesn’t take too long until Microsoft releases an updated pre-release version that’s worth getting excited over.


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