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Office Web Apps, Google Docs go head-to-head

The online versions of Microsoft Word and Excel challenge longtime Web-app leader Google Docs, while PowerPoint takes on Zoho Show in the online-presentation category.

Microsoft's first true browser-based versions of the venerable Word, Excel, and PowerPoint applications won't make you abandon the programs' full-featured counterparts installed your hard drive. But if you splurge for Office 2010, you may find yourself spending a lot more time working in your browser.

You probably already do some word processing and spreadsheet work using Google Docs, Zoho, or another such service. (I described the Web's best desktop-app replacements in a post last month.)

These services have offered first-rate word processing and spreadsheet programs that run in a browser and let you create, open, and store files compatible with Word, Excel, and other programs. The services can't match the formatting, commenting, change-tracking, and other advanced features of Word and Excel, but they meet the word processing and spreadsheet needs of most casual PC users.

Microsoft Office Web Apps arrive
Accompanying the release of Office 2010 are versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote that run in your browser via Microsoft's Skydrive service (a Hotmail or other Windows Live account is required). I tested only the three older Web App components. I'm not familiar enough with OneNote to form an opinion.

I was most impressed with the Office PowerPoint Web App, which offers a surprising number of editing options. Still, I will likely have much more occasion to use Word Web App and Excel Web App. Both are eminently serviceable equivalents to their desktop counterparts, albeit with only a fraction of the features of Word and Excel. After switching between Google Docs and Office Web Apps for a week, I prefer the Google services, which offer more features in most categories and feel more familiar. Still, the Office Web Apps have a lot going for them.

Google Docs doesn't do presentations, so I compared PowerPoint Web App with the Zoho Show beta service, which is about as fast and full-featured as any free presentation service you'll find on the Web. You would expect the Microsoft product to be more compatible with the standalone version's features, but PowerPoint Web App also has a much more polished appearance and a surprising array of editing features.

Getting started with the real Office online
After you install Office 2010, you're prompted to visit the Welcome to Office 2010 site, where you'll find a link to sign up for the "Free Web Companions to Office."

Welcome to Microsoft Office 2010 main page
Sign up for Microsoft's Office Web Apps via the "Welcome to Office 2010" site. Microsoft.com

Either sign in to an existing Windows Live account or create a free one. Then click the Office button on the main Windows Live menu to view the files in your SkyDrive online storage. Hover over a file name to activate options that let you edit the file in your browser, share it, download it, or see a version history.

Microsoft SkyDrive list of stored files
Mouse over a file listed in your SkyDrive account to view options for editing, sharing, and downloading the file. skydrive.live.com

Opening a Word document in Word Web App shows an abbreviated version of the ribbon that debuted in most Office 2007 apps and returns in Office 2010. But rather than the standard complement of categories, Word Web App has a much more limited set of formatting options, although it does support several levels of headings among its two dozen-or-so styles.

Microsoft Word Web App main document view
The options in Office Word Web App are limited to standard formatting features and styles. Microsoft

I generally prefer the new Office ribbon to the old Office toolbars, but I found more of the word-processing features I needed on Google Docs than I did on Word Web App, including a greater number of insertion options and an easier-to-access spell checker. Likewise, the Google Docs spreadsheet may look old-fashioned next to the ribbon-bedecked Excel Web App, but Google's spreadsheet supports more formulas and other functions.

The formula options in the Google Docs spreadsheet
Google Docs' spreadsheet provides more formula options than Microsoft's Excel Web App. Google

It's clear Microsoft put a lot of work into the look of the browser versions of Word and Excel, but it's equally clear that the Web flavors of the cornerstone Office apps are shadows of their desktop equivalents. When you look at them for what they are instead of what they aren't, you find two well-designed, convenient, and very useful services, even with the ads that appear on most Windows Live screens (but not when you're working on your files, thank goodness).

The star of the Office Web Apps show is the PowerPoint Web App, which is particularly handy for making last-minute alterations to existing .ppt and .pptx files. Duplicating, deleting, and editing files is almost as natural as doing the same operations in the desktop version of PowerPoint. (As with the Word and Excel Web Apps, a link to open the current file in the app's Office 2010 desktop counterpart is placed prominently on the right side of the ribbon--when the Office 2010 app is available, that is.)

Microsoft PowerPoint Web App main window
The PowerPoint Web App provides a range of editing and other touch-up tools to facilitate last-minute changes to presentations. Microsoft

As you would expect, transitions, timed playbacks, and other more-advanced features aren't available in the Web version of PowerPoint, although more effects played back when I opened files in the PowerPoint Web App than when I opened them in Zoho Show. (Zoho Show doesn't support the .pptx XML file format in the Office 2007 and 2010 versions of PowerPoint.)

Even with these limitations, I was impressed by the tools offered in Zoho Show for altering existing PowerPoint presentations and creating new ones. The service includes several options for sharing, publishing, and exporting presentations. You can duplicate, delete, and create slides, as well as insert various text boxes, images, and objects.

Zoho Show online presentation service
Zoho Show lets you create and edit PowerPoint presentations in your browser. Zoho

Microsoft's Office Web Apps are certainly not game-changers, but they demonstrate the growing sophistication of browser-based productivity applications. In their current state, they aren't likely to play a prominent role in organizations with any sizable number of PCs so as not to siphon customers from SharePoint and other server-based Microsoft properties. But they give Office 2010 a handy added feature that helps justify the program's expense--even with the flashy ads on most Windows Live pages.