Test-drive: Office Web apps technical preview

It's Office. On the Web. That's not necessarily a good thing, we discover in an early look at Microsoft's online versions of Excel and PowerPoint.

Microsoft has finally started to open up its Web-based versions of Office apps to early testers. Thursday we got access to a "technical preview" of Excel and PowerPoint on the Web (not, notably, Word). The obvious comparison that will be made is to Google Docs.

Excel

The version of Excel that we have access to is the most similar to Google Docs in capabilities. It allows simultaneous editing -- two or more people working on a spreadsheet at the same time. As in Google Docs' spreadsheet app, as soon as one person updates a part of the spreadsheet, everyone else viewing the sheet gets the change in real time, or close enough to it. Users don't have to "save" their file for the changes to get pushed out.

In raw editing capability, Excel on the Web beats Google. It will have features approaching the PC counterpart of the app, not to mention the same user interface (the "ribbon" Office users are accustomed to) instead of Google's old-timey but clear pull-down menus. The commonality between the Web and PC versions of the products should make it easier for people to pop between the desktop Office apps and their Web counterparts.

The technical preview of Office Web Apps shows how similar the online apps will be to their desktop counterparts, even though many features are missing in this early version. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

In the preview we saw the user interface of the Web-based version of Excel is extremely close to the traditional version of the app. Getting comfortable with the app took no time at all. It's just a lot slower than the desktop version. Given that this is such an early preview, we were not surprised that many tabs and features were missing from the Web app. But complex formatting, database elements, and charts from Excel files created in Windows transferred with good "fidelity" (that's Microsoft's word) to the Web. It appears users won't lose anything in translation in the move from editing documents on a desktop to the Web.

Sharing in Office Web Apps is unbelievably tedious. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

However, setting up sharing is much more tedious in Office Web Apps than it is in Google Docs. In Office Web, you don't share files, you share folders. So to share a spreadsheet, you first save it to a particular folder, and then share that folder with the people who you want to let into the file. That's no big deal if you're just sharing one file, but if you want to share different files with different groups of people, it's confusing and tedious, since you have to create a different folder for each set of people you want to share with. If you want to change the sharing specifics on one document in a folder but not others, you'll have to move the document to a different folder. This is a catastrophic design flaw. Worse, there's not even a clear "share" link. You have to find the "Shared with" entry in each folder, click on the "People I selected" link, then "Edit permissions," then enter the name of the person or people you want to share with, and then, once that person shows up in your sharing list, you have to change the default permission from "view" to "edit."

Google, for its part, lets you share files from within the files themselves, by selecting "Invite people" from the "Share" menu. It makes much more sense. You can also see all your Google docs in one big list. With Microsoft, you have to page through your folders to see your documents. Microsoft does have a nice browser plug-in for drag-and-drop uploading of files, however. That's a bonus, but not enough of one to offset the awful sharing workflow.

PowerPoint

Like the online version of Excel, PowerPoint on the Web is a high-fidelity experience. Documents come through just as they appear on the PC, and can be edited in place on the Web. Most of the graphically intensive features, like adding animations and design elements, are not yet in this preview, though, so we could not evaluate the experience of creating complex builds and graphics over a Web connection. PowerPoint documents displayed very well on the Web, as I said, but I'd like to see a real full-screen slideshow viewer (the current version displays just a touch of browser frame) for showing presentations over the Web.

The capability to edit a PowerPoint doc from any Web-connected PC right before you have to make the actual talk will make many presenters a lot less nervous about making last-minute changes before a pitch.

As in Excel on the Web, only new Office 2007 files (.PPTX for Powerpoint; .XLSX for Excel) can be edited online. Older .PPTs can be viewed and displayed, but not edited.

Word

Finally, while online Word editor isn't available yet (the viewer is, and it works well), we did learn a few things about the capability -- none good. First of all, Word online won't get you simultaneous editing. When you open a file to work on it you will lock it, and other people won't be able to get in to change things. If you want simultaneous editing, you'll apparently be able to do it from within the Word 2010 installed app. Online simultaneous editing is "on the road map," we're told, but won't be ready even when Office Web Apps goes public in 2010.

OneNote is on the same track as Word, and will get editing capabilities online when Word does.

You also won't be able to embed your Word documents in other Web pages, Scribd-like. There will be options to embed Excel files. (The feature does not seem to be turned on yet.)

It's no Google

Office Web Apps is a fundamentally different product from Google Docs. The apps run more slowly than the lightweight online Google productivity apps, but Microsoft will offer more features and commonality with the desktop apps.

For people and companies that have standardized on Microsoft Office, the preview shows that Office Web Apps will do a good job of extending the desktop experience to the Web. But the desktop legacy may also be a liability. File management -- moving documents between desktop and Web, or keeping them in sync across platforms -- is going to be complex, and it's unclear how Microsoft is going to integrate its desktop apps, PC sync products like Mesh, and Web-based storage services like Skydrive, where Office Web Apps stores files for consumers. Also, Enterprise customers can use SharePoint for storage, which may not integrate well with workers' personal file stores, online or offline.

In what appears to be a childish move, but one that Microsoft is defending by saying, "we had to prioritize," Office Web Apps doesn't work on Google's Chrome browser. That's a shame, since for Web apps (as opposed to more-static sites), I have found Chrome to be a faster and thus more usable platform than Firefox or Internet Explorer. (Office Web Apps also supports Safari.)

In summary, Office Web Apps is, very clearly, the desktop Office suite put on the Web. It's feature-rich and appears to be targeted at individuals creating complex documents on their own. New users who don't need or want the complexity of a desktop app, or who are more accustomed to working hand-in-hand with others, may be put off. Certainly, if Microsoft releases this product to the public without fixing the collaboration workflow, even die-hard Office users will avoid the service when they're in a hurry and have work to do with colleagues.

 

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