I spent Wednesday afternoon getting to know Microsoft's new Office Live Workspace, a free service that lets you store Office files online for easy access and sharing.
Once I got used to what the service isn't--it isn't a way to actually work on the files in a browser--I came to appreciate how easy the service makes it to save Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files on the Web, and open them in their original app on any PC with an Internet link.
The biggest downside is how difficult it is to get the service working on a Vista machine running Office 2007. I was uploading and downloading Office 2003 documents on my XP machine in just a few minutes, but I had to jump through a series of hoops to do the same in their Office 2007 equivalents on my newer Vista PC.
I decided to start from scratch by creating a new Windows Live account rather than using my existing Hotmail account. Signing up for the account was a breeze, though I opted out of most of the options the installer presented. For example, I had no interest in downloading Messenger, the Windows Live Toolbar (my browser's cluttered enough already), or anything having to do with OneCare, which single-handedly destroyed my home network when I tried out the beta last summer. Be sure to uncheck the option to make MSN your home page, and you may want to avoid sending Microsoft any more data than the company already helps itself to.
Once the Windows Live installation completed, it took just a few more clicks to get started with Office Live Workspace. You're prompted to give the generic workspace a name and description, which you can change later simply by mousing over the name in the left pane and choosing one of the options that appears.
Of course, there's not much you can do with the service until you get some files uploaded. You can add files from inside the workspace one at a time or in batches, though the batch approach uses an ActiveX control, and thus requires Internet Explorer 6 or higher. Since I normally use Firefox (and had used that browser to create the workspace), switching to IE just to upload a bunch of files at once would have been a major inconvenience. Still, I never intended to use this method to add files to the workspace. Instead, I downloaded the Office Live Add-in, which lets you upload files to and download them from the workspace directly inside Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
The utility adds a toolbar to Office XP and 2003, and new items on the Office button menu in Office 2007. To open a file from your workspace in Word 2003, Excel 2003, or PowerPoint 2003, click the down arrow to the right of the toolbar's Open button, and choose the workspace from the list that appears. Likewise, you can save the file you're working on in one of those three programs to your workspace by clicking the down arrow to the right of the Save button and selecting the workspace you want to add it to.
In Office 2007 you open files from your workspace or add them to a workspace by clicking the Office button, choosing either Open from Office Live or Save to Office Live, and selecting the workspace in the window on the right.
Unfortunately, getting the options in place on my Vista PC required a separate download, a tweak to my Office 2007 settings, and a couple of restarts. The separate download wasn't so bad, but my Office 2007 security settings prevented the add-in from running. First, I had to change my Add-ins settings in Word 2007 (click the Office button > Word Options > Trust Center > Trust Center Settings > Add-Ins > Require Application Add-ins to be signed by Trusted Publisher > OK > OK). Then I had to select "Enable all code published by this publisher" in the pop-up window that appeared after I clicked the warning at the top of the document window when I next opened a file in Word. That's a lot of running around just to get two Microsoft products to work together as they're designed to.
After the change of settings, the missing menu options appeared on the Office button menu. I was able to transfer a Word 2003 template from my XP machine to Word 2007 on the Vista machine in just a few seconds. And it was just as quick and simple to place an Excel 2007 worksheet into the workspace I created, and download it from there to Excel 2003 on the XP system.
Among the workspace templates Microsoft provides are ones geared to students ("Class", "Essay", "School," and "Study"), business ("Job Search", "Meeting," and "Project"), and special subjects ("Event" "Household", "Sports," and "Travel"). Even with all these workspace options, there's not much you can do with the files in your browser besides read them or copy material from them for pasting elsewhere. You can add comments to the file, and you can view its history in the Activity pane on the right side of the screen. That's about it.
To share the file, click the Share button, choose Share Workspace, and enter the e-mail addresses of people who you want to let edit or view the file. The Share Screen option requires the Microsoft SharedView beta, which I didn't test. The program is designed to let you share your desktop or application with the people you invite. I may try it when the need arises to collaborate with someone on a file in real time.
Most people share files by attaching them to e-mail. Office Live Workspace is a small step up from this technique by providing rudimentary versioning, though you still do all your work in a desktop app. For now I'll be satisfied with what the service is--a file-sharing freebie--rather than fret about what it isn't--a Google Docs-type online word processor/spreadsheet/presentation program.
Tomorrow: keep the junk out of your Outlook inbox.